The nutty Michigan coverage isn't so much about Harbaugh as it is a signal to the Big Ten that Fox wants to party.
best and worst
So here we go again, the 2015 Michigan football season is nearly upon us, and I am trotting out the same column format in the hope that denizens of this blog will want to read 10,000 word recaps of games laced with references to 90’s cartoons, professional wrestling, and random animated gifs.
If you want to read last year’s pre-season column, and boy you should if you want to have one of those cry-laughs that are all the rage, check it out. Spoiler alert – I spend a LOT of time being semi-optimistic about Brady Hoke and actually defend Dave Brandon.
Best(?): New Beginnings
When Michigan takes the field against Utah on September 3rd, Jim Harbaugh will be the third different head coach to lead the charge for the Wolverines in the past 8 seasons. The previous three coaching changes at Michigan spanned a combined 39 largely drama-free seasons.*
But no, really, this time it feels right. With Rich Rodriguez, you had an outsider, an innovative offensive coach trying to change the culture of a program that had always been wary of these “gimmicky offenses” (it was like the town elders describing dancing in Footloose whenever Joe Tiller’s Purdue Boilermakers came to town), his tenure beginning on rocky footing and never recovering after a disastrous first season, as the losses mounted and the media-stoked torches and pitchforks came out. People forget, especially the younger fans, just how strange it was in 2008 to see Michigan be decidedly below-average, even awful. Sure, Michigan had suffered through some bumpy seasons, a 4- or 5-loss season here or there, but it hadn’t posted a losing season since 1967. For perspective, the people alive today who even faintly remember that season are nearing retirement age. But as soon as Carr walked off the field with his Capital One Bowl, I don’t know, commemorative Alec Baldwin coffee mug, whatever lingering braces to the gates holding back football’s Father Time gave way, and Michigan finally suffered through a perhaps long-overdue run of on-the-field disappointment and off-the-field tumultuousness. If you want the gory details, you can delve deep into the archives of this site or pick up a book.
When I say Michigan was “due” a downturn, it doesn’t mean I wanted that to be the case; obviously as a fan, I expect the teams I root for to win every game at all times, rationality be damned. But the signs had been there for some time that UM was falling behind the rest of college football even if the wins were still somewhat-consistent. It wasn’t just App St. and Oregon blitzing them in 2007; OSU had taken 6 of the last 7 meetings between the teams, they had lost 4 straight bowl games, and seemed unwilling to adopt more explosive offensive systems despite having top-notch NFL talent on that side of the ball for the bulk of Carr’s tenure. The defenses never handled mobile QBs particularly well, and as teams moved toward more wide-open, spread-infused offensive systems it never felt like UM learned to compensate.
As a testament to Carr and his recruiting, this reticence didn’t always matter; despite what is said about the utilization of mobile QBs to level out talent discrepancies by forcing defenders to account for all 11 players on the field, you can win a whole lotta games by being way more talented than those other offenses, scheme be damned. That’s why Indiana and Antwaan Randle El, who was a great college QB, never won more than 5 games while he was there and, save for barely-ranked Minnesota and MSU, never collected any prominent scalps. And so, Michigan could afford to stay largely pat as long as the talent keep flowing into Ann Arbor consistently, which is why those last couple of Carr years, with the (comparatively) mediocre classes coming to the head, probably shouldn’t have seemed so strange. They were top-heavy teams with shallow two-deeps that led to Johnny Sears being entrusted as a #1 cornerback for about 1/2 of a game before everyone looked at the scoreboard. Decided talent advantages and consistent coaching netted you 6-9 wins a year, then good fortune and fate decided the rest; it’s why UM seemed to ping-pong between 8 and 11 wins depending on the strength of its upperclassmen. Some years they looked like fringe national contenders; others they couldn’t get out of their own way.
But I digress; RR didn’t work out in large part because his defenses were historically terrible, he suffered through a miserable string of bad luck (TO margin, injuries, media), had some issues recruiting and retaining players, and just never connected with a large component of the UM fanbase. Plus, when Bill Martin was succeeded by noted pizza delivery man Dave Brandon and UM slogged through an uninspiring 3rd season and a shellacking at the hands of Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl, the writing was on the wall.
I’m REALLY not going to relive the coaching search following RR’s departure, but again, why did we think Dave Brandon was any good at his job? Because he acted like a smug asshole when responding to the Free Press and Stretchgate? By displaying the same temperament as a 12-year-old Vlogger , Vine-Star, Snap-chattress, or whatever Vanity Fair keeps telling me is the new wave in “cross-platform media stars”?
So in came Brady Hoke, a former UM defensive line coach who grew up under Lloyd Carr and represented the sole viable branch of his coaching tree. He had two semi-successful stints at other programs, winning 12 games in his last year at Ball St. and another 9 at San Diego St. two years later. He preached defense and “toughness” above everything else, seemed to embody the derisive term “manball” while still fielding semi-explosive pro-style offenses, and, well, said this at his first press conference.
That sound you heard was a decent number of middle-aged UM fans letting loose a sigh of relief that FINALLY UM had a coach who understood why winning was important and how special a program it was, feelings that were completely different than at any other program in the country. At Michigan you were expected to win with class and dignity, not like UM’s rivals who were, I guess, known to either win while pillaging college towns in the Midwest or losing while flinging their poop at the TV cameras?
I honestly don’t know anymore, but at the time it was super-important that Michigan be run by a “Michigan Man”, a phrase that I’m sure my 21-month-old daughter will start repeating ad nauseam once she realizes repeating the word “f*ck” is pretty played out.
Anyway, feel free to, again, read this blog’s archives or pick up another book if you want the gory details of the Hoke/Brandon era. It started off fantastic, with UM winning 11 games and the Sugar Bowl, besting ND and OSU in exciting contests, and generally looking like a competent program again. And yeah, it felt like a bit of an aberration even while it was happening, with a fantastic turnover margin, unsustainable 4th-down stoppage rate, and a healthy dose of luck sprinkled in.
Brady Hoke, though, recruited like a madman, and even when the wheels started to come off as remnants of RR’s offensive playmakers weren’t replaced and UM burned through offensive coordinators with little progress, it still felt like UM could just talent their way through the potholes of the “bare cupboards” left behind by the previous regime.
But if anything, every successive season under Hoke showed just how far behind Michigan had fallen compared to both its rivals (MSU, OSU, even ND) and college football in general. The team wasn’t showing progress, and that sense of malaise, of indifference by the fans, went from simmering to scalding, driving down attendance and further eroding an already-fragile relationships between those in the stands and the athletic department. It all came to a head against Minnesota, when Shane Morris was out on his feet and a bunch of grown-ass men were either too scared, too dumb, or too weak to protect him. And this is coming from a guy who initially defended Hoke and his handling of the situation. I still believe that Hoke honestly felt that Morris hadn’t suffered a concussion, and there appeared to be significant amount of confusion on the sidelines at the time, but regardless it was yet another example of the terrible leadership you saw under Hoke, wrapped up in lame explanations and an inability to adequately respond to complex issues. Brandon was out shortly thereafter, and Hoke followed after the season, but both of their fates were sealed long before.
So in came Jim Hackett, who has (thus far) turned out to be everything Brandon wasn’t as an AD – thoughtful, humble, proactive, and aware that the fans cared more about UM fielding a competent team they could be proud of than whether or not Beyonce recorded a 30-second video at halftime. He set his eyes on the biggest unicorn in Michigan maize and blue, Jim Harbaugh. The guy who delivered on a promise to beat OSU, who turned Stanford into a top-10 program, took the San Francisco 49ers from middling franchise to the cusp of hoisting the Lombardi trophy, and who was really UM’s last, best hope at unifying the fractured fanbase. And unlike in coaching searches past, Hackett never lost focus, never made an errant comment to the media, or forgot to bring his phone on a boating trip; he just snagged one of the best 10 football coaches in the world to come to his alma mater and win games, a man who tweets about attacking days with enthusiasm previously unknown to mankind and signs his letters “Sincerely yours in football”.
So yeah, UM is entering yet another season with a different man at the helm, but for once it feels like the stars are aligned. And, yeah, it might still not work out the way everyone hopes, but at least this feels like the right beginning with the right coach leading, and after the last decade of UM football, it feels like a damn miracle.
Worst: Wasting Time
I was skimming the old depth chart and realized, much to my dismay, how many guys were entering their third and fourth years in the program because they wasted a redshirt on a one-game “tryout” as a freshman or, worse, some meaningless special teams play. I mean, I loved Dymonte Thomas’s punt block in the moment, but I’d love it even more if it had come as a RS Freshman and Harbaugh would have another 3 years to mold him into a competent safety. Same with Shane Morris, who played spot duty as a freshman because Hoke failed to watch any game tape, ever, of his QBs behind Gardner. I know that not every coach is crazy about grad transfers, and perhaps the administration was more strict about it, but Shane Morris is now entering his true junior year with years of bad habits and technique to rehabilitate and little incentive by the coaching staff to do so, as he’s apparently behind Rudock this year and has a mountain of competition in 2016. This is all speculation, I’ll admit, but if Morris still had 3 years of eligibility instead of 2, I’m guessing the coaches and fans would be much more optimistic about him leading the team either this year or in the future.
Now, obviously there are going to be guys who will earn early playing time; Peppers didn’t come to UM to sit behind Blake Countess for a season. But there was more competent depth than I think Hoke wanted to admit those first couple of years, and so by wasting whole years on a couple of downs, the vicious cycle of playing younger players early could very well hamper Harbaugh in his first year or two at UM.
I trust that Harbaugh will be able to maximize the players he has on the roster regardless of years left, but it’s just annoying to see Ben Gedeon entering his third year of playing time with a total of 36 total tackles to his name.
Best: Coaching Competence
There’s a meme around here that refers to former UM kicker KC Lopata as the platonic ideal of “Kicking Competency”, a replacement-level college kicker who mostly hit the kicks he was supposed to and missed the others. Coming on the heels of Garrett Rivas, one of the best kickers in UM’s history, it was a letdown, but he at least provided fans a baseline expectation for special teams; get the ball inside the 30 and you were probably good.
Now, I’m not going to say anyone on the last coaching staff was outright incompetent at his job; you don’t get to coaching at a major college program, even one as semi-dysfunctional as UM was for large stretches of the 00’s and 10’s, without being very good at your job, at least abstractly. Brady Hoke didn’t seem to know how to run a team, but he did a solid job building up the defensive line and his recruiting was top-notch. I thought Al Borges didn’t know how to call a game or mold an offense with the pieces provided, but he absolutely knows a great deal about football and, in a vacuum, could devise a slew of offensive plays that would be successful. Doug Nussmeier played in the NFL for a couple of years, was an offensive coordinator at a number of prominent college programs (UW, Alabama, UM, now Florida), and will probably be a HC at some point in the near future. The oft-criticized Darrell Funk showed demonstrable improvements across the offensive line despite limited depth and injuries, Roy Manning tried his best to coach cornerbacks despite not having any experience at that job heading into 2014, and while I’m of the camp that guys like Fred Jackson and Dan Ferrigno (as a special-teams coach) shouldn’t have been holding those positions last year, it’s not like either is devoid of talent or knowledge of the game. It’s telling that most of them struggled to find comparable jobs after Hoke was let go, and a couple (Borges and Ferrigno jump out) were seemingly dragged along by Hoke at his various stops without much additional vetting.
Regardless, it was clear pretty early on last year (and really, the last couple of seasons) that the coaches weren’t “coaching up” to their level just as much as players seemed to underperform compared to ability. Older players seemed as lost as freshmen at times, the offense was consistently bogged down due to poor execution at every major group, the defense struggled to deploy press coverage despite preparing it during the offseason, largely abandoning it once Blake Countess got repeatedly burned against ND and Rutgers, and special teams found ever more impressive ways to not field the right number of players. Last year’s team didn’t have nearly enough talent or experience to overcome these coaching issues, and it showed in the season’s results.
Which is why fans should be as excited about the rest of the coaching staff changes as they are about Harbaugh taking the lead. Everyone knows Harbaugh is a great coach, but with additions of guys like Drevno, Durkin, and Baxter, while also retaining Mattison to help with the defensive line, the team will have a staff that can at least get the players to perform at their expected levels consistently and, you hope, provide the type of guidance and in-the-moment leadership that great teams are built on. Hell, having guys like Wheatley and Zordich at positions they have coached previously and capable of doing more than drown listeners in hyperbole will be a breath of fresh air. The talent is there for UM to be at least competent on offense and very good on defense; I expect the coaches will make sure they are given every opportunity to at least meet this level, if not exceed it.
Best: Actual QB Competition
This should come as no surprise to those who watched Russell Bellomy take snaps against Nebraska, or Shane Morris get trotted out against Minnesota, that Brady Hoke and his offensive coordinators never seemed able or willing to introduce real competition at the QB position except in extreme circumstances. He never recruited more than 1 QB in a class, completely skipping the position in 2012, and made it known to each recruit that he wasn’t going to bring in anyone else to compete for the position in a given year. There are assorted rumors that Messiah deWeaver decommitted from Michigan specifically because Harbaugh planned on bringing in other QB prospects in the class, an about-face to what he heard from Hoke. And I’m not going to slag the quality of the kids brought in each year, but no QB brought in by Hoke has looked capable of starting except for maybe Morris, and even that is tinged with the expectation for massive improvement under Harbaugh’s tutelage. That’s why soul-crushed Devin Gardner was the starter the past two years despite a clear degradation in performance.
Now, that’s all changed since Harbaugh showed up. With Gardner’s graduation, the QB position is one of the real question marks on the team, and Harbaugh addressed it early and often by snagging Iowa’s Jake Rudock’s graduate transfer, John O’Korn’s “regular” transfer from Houston, and recruiting two QBs in the 2014 class (Alex Malzone and Zach Gentry) and potentially 2015 (Brandon Peters and Victor Viramontes). In addition, he inherited Shane Morris as well as Russell Bellomy (EDIT: Bellomy packed up and transfered to UTSA) and Wilton Speight. If you are counting at home, that’s 6 (EDIT: 5) possible QBs this year and 8 (I believe) next year, assuming nobody leaves, decommits, etc. And there’s variety there, from more finesse throwers like Rudock and Malzone to rocket-armed bombers like Morris and Gentry, and a range of athleticism that would work well with Harbaugh’s penchant for dualish-threat QBs.
Now, having eight possible QBs next year when you only have about that many at for all three LBs isn’t optimal, but it is a marked (and necessary) departure from the last couple of years. It’s a bit cliche, but a good QB can spackle over a whole bunch of other issues, and I have to think that had there been better options these past couple years under center, or at least the program drive to promote healthy competition, the offensive sputtering might have been mitigated somewhat. I’m the biggest Gardner homer in the world, but there were games he clearly didn’t have it, and being able to trot out someone, anyone who could settle the team down would have been a godsend, similar to when Tate Forcier would step in for Denard due to injury or inconsistency for a series or two.
All signals point to Rudock and Morris being the only viable starters this year, with Rudock getting the nod right now due to ball security and experience. We’ve all heard the positive buzz around Morris, and I suspect we’ll see him play some this year especially if Rudock struggles (I know Brian has been quick to dismiss his benching at Iowa as just another indictment of Ferentz’s rapidly-loosening grip on his sanity, and his stats looked fine given the offense he was stuck in, but I’ll have to see him on the field before I’m completely comfortable), but when you can get a fifth-year senior with starting experience, you don’t put him on the bench unless Morris just absolutely outplays him. Besides, this year isn’t one where UM is competing for a conference title BUT they need to get back to winning football games they should – that means beating your Rutgers and Marylands of the world. Rudock gives them the best chance out of the gate.
Best: The Gang’s (Mostly) Back
In what feels like forever, Michigan won’t be breaking anyone new into the starting lineup this year, with the only major addition being OC/OL coach Tim Drevno, one of the better offensive line coaches in the country. It’s been said a million times before, but offensive lines do best when they have continuity and experience (talent helps, and UM has a good amount of that as well), and this year’s team should have 4 upperclassmen starters and a true sophomore (Cole) who ably filled in from “go” at left tackle last year. Depth behind the starters remains a bit scary (LTT, JBB, and Dawson still seem like projects to varying degrees, and Kugler isn’t really an option outside of center unless you like small guards), so the loss of Jack Miller and Glasgow assuming those snaps, isn’t optimal. My guess is that Kugler will get every chance to take over at center if either of the guards struggle, but right now it looks like one of the better units in the conference both as run-blockers as well as in pass protection.
Worst: Blocky-Catchy-Runny Guys?
To say that Michigan’s offense struggled over the past couple of years would be selling the tire-fire short a bit, but what was so unnerving wasn’t so much that the team failed to execute consistently as much as they never seemed to have a consistent plan or identity except in the broadest of strokes. The nadir of narrow-minded planning was UM trotting out tackle over to out cro-Magnon fellow Neanderthal Minnesota in 2013, but the offensive philosophy under Brady Hoke could best be described as
¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Passing plays often appeared to be 1-man routes, and Devin Gardner was often called on to “improvise” first downs, sacrificing ribs and sternum because the sidelines couldn’t think of something more productive. It led to a whole lotta this:
Now, there won’t be any such questions under Harbaugh, who has shown the ability to meld his general offensive philosophies (power running football, multiple tight ends with frequent pre-snap motion) with the talent available. He turned Toby Gerhart into a dominant college back and a 2nd-round draft pick, Tyler Gaffney into an All American, and a bunch of guys who should probably be working as associates at hedge funds into NFL TEs. And oh yeah, he might have had something to do with Andrew Luck being the #1 overall draft pick. As for the NFL, he fixed Urban Meyer protégé Alex Smith enough to nearly get to the Super Bowl, then nearly won it all with Colin Kaepernick. And he showed he could establish a great running game with players lacking elite speed, as Frank Gore enjoyed a bit of a resurgence under Harbaugh.
So the question isn’t whether Harbaugh is capable of producing efficient, sometimes spectacular offenses, but whether the team he inherited has the players to do so this season.
With the departure of the much-maligned Devin Funchess, the receiving core is basically two semi-known commodities (Darboh and Chesson) who probably both top out at competent #2/#3 receivers, a track guy in Chesson who might just be fast and a great special teams blocker, and a bunch of potential that is either freshmen (Cole and Perry), coming off injuries (Harris), or Moe Ways, who will probably get the reputation for being great catching contested balls because he can’t get away from anyone. I know there’s been some buzz about Darboh stepping up, but he collected nearly half of his yards and 40% of his receptions against IU and Miami (NTM), struggling to get separation against anyone else even when Devin Funchess was healthy and, theoretically, drawing more attention from the defense. I’m holding out hope that Canteen takes that next step, but he’s still a guy who looks great on tape but never had more than 1 catch or record more than 8 yards in a single game last year. It also sounds like he might be moving permanently to corner, so what the hell do I know. And while there are those who never thought Norfleet would work at UM as a receiver, I still think he’d be a solid slot option on a team that needs someone to step up. I mean, Perry might have burned his own redshirt given his play in fall camp, but trusting a freshman at that position is always dicey, and I’d rather have an extra year of a senior than a meh freshman season when UM isn’t competing for titles.
There’s definitely some talent here, but unless Harris shows he’s recovered from yet another hamstring injury and can stretch the defense vertically, nobody in the receiving core looks like they’ll put the fear of God in opposing secondaries. That’s a big reason I’m banking on Rudock getting the nod at least to the start the year; this team is going to rely on shorter passes with minimal mistakes to move the ball vertically, and Morris’s arm strength isn’t as helpful when nobody is farther than 20 yards downfield.
Now, if this team is going to have a true downfield threat, it will probably come from the TE position. Jake Butt is the obvious headliner at the position, and I expect him to put up great numbers both as a safety valve for the QBs as well as a key downfield threat. Since Harbaugh likes to roll out multiple TE sets, I also expect Khalid Hill to be involved heavily in the running game as a blocker as well as an extra set of hands. Ian Bunting could be a monster in the right offense if his catching radius is as advertised, but it’s all potential with him thus far and he still needs to show he can transition from WR to the flex TE position Devin Funchess occupied before everyone realized he couldn’t block. A Jim Harbaugh-led offense with Butt as the lead TE should terrify the rest of the conference, but he’s only going to be able to reach his potential if someone else, anyone else can stretch the field or at least keep the secondary from closing in on him on obvious passing downs.
As for the running backs, I don’t know man. I want to believe that someone out of the Smith/Green/Isaac/Johnson parallelogram of runners will emerge as a leader for the position, but right now it sure seems like the pack remains pretty jumbled. With the three guys who actually played last year, you kind of wish you could Voltron them into a single back because THAT guy would be downright unstoppable. Smith feels like the closest analog to what Harbaugh had in Frank Gore, a guy who can work his way through traffic for a couple more yards but isn’t going to run past anyone. Green has all the size and ability in the world but never seemed able to put it all together, and I’ve heard enough questions about his vision and finding holes that he might fall out of favor quickly with Harbaugh. Johnson is coming off another ACL injury, and while he isn’t going to make most guys miss, what we did see last year was a guy who could take what the line got him and bruise past a couple more defenders if he got a step on them. Of the lot, Johnson looked like the most average runner, which sadly probably also made him the best. But he’s still recovering from surgery and (I assume) will have an uphill battle to get playing time this year unless everyone in front of him falls apart.
Ty Isaac has both the pedigree and the look of a #1 back, but struggled at times in USC’s offense and seemed buried on the depth chart at the end of the year. He remains a tantalizing option as a runner and receiver but without the college-level production to quite quiet the nagging doubt you may have.
I suspect that Smith, Green, and Isaac will share playing time to start the year, but for Smith to get a plurality of carries if he can consistently find the hole and get positive yards. This is the prototypical Smith run, and it’s the type Harbaugh loves to see.
Smith will never wow you with his speed, but the guy at the top of UM’s record book wasn’t a burner either. Isaac has that rare mix of size and speed you dream of as a coach, but it sounds like he’s had limited practice reps and hasn’t played a down of “actual” football for over a year. I’ve never been super-high on Green because it did seem like he missed rushing routes more often than the other backs (not to say Smith and Johnson always followed the right path), and unless that’s been addressed in the offseason I don’t see him bringing enough other skills to the table to compensate.
Best: Hoke's Thick Blue Line
You can throw literally any type of rock and hit an issue with Brady Hoke's tenure at UM, but the one thing that he did very consistently was recruit defensive linemen. Of course, this should come as no shock because that was his favored position throughout his coaching career, basically serving in some capacity as a defensive line coach until he took over at Ball St. He inherited some nice linemen in Martin and RVB and turned them loose, creating one of the more dominant short-yardage units in the country during 2011. The next couple of years were less impressive, but the defense always held up reasonably well on the front line and consistently improved against the run. So it should come as no surprise that the defensive line looks to be perhaps the strongest unti on the team even with the loss of Bryan Mone. Maurice Hurst has been getting rave reviews this offseason, while both Willie Henry and Ryan Glasgow should build on solid seasons last year. I know other people have said as much, but if Henry figures out how to actually play the position effectively, he'll be a damn All-American candidate given his natural size and strength.
Now, the one knock against Hoke's defensive line production is that it never figured out how to generate an organic pass rush - every year you'd hear about the team wanting to "Earn the Right to Rush 4", then you'd see Frank Clark chasing a QB into open space and nothing much coming of it. Barring a huge jump by
Taco Charlton or Lawrence Marshall, though, I'm not sure this team will be much better at getting to the QB from the edges. I've been a big fan of Mario Ojemudia because he had a great motor in high school and always seemed faster than he probably was, but it's 2015 and in three years has 6 sacks and remains somewhat undersized. Mattison has always shown a penchant for bringing pressure via the LBs and safeties, so the hope is that him and Durkin will be able to generate pressure that way if it doesn't come from up front, but it's still a bit depressing that both OSU and MSU seem overloaded with rushers while UM is trying to get by with smoke and mirrors.
Best(?): About those Linebackers
You know how I mentioned earlier UM has about as many QBs on the roster as LBs for 2016? Yeah, let’s forget about that for a minute and remember that in 2015, UM should be fielding an all-senior LB core for what feels like eons. Ross, Morgan, and Bolden have all been starters in the past, fending off competent replacements and generally playing at an acceptable level whenever they’ve seen the field. After years of seeing underclassmen thrust into ill-fitting positions, it is refreshing to know that the LBs are deep and experienced, and with the improved defensive line should be a formidable front 7.
And yet, I can’t shake a lingering sense that something is missing. While all three players have been objectively “good” during their time at UM, they have also all been singled out as the weak links before. For all the talk about Morgan’s ability to stop a ball carrier dead in his tracks, he’s still not a great athlete and is coming off an injury that knocked him out all of last year. Bolden led the team in tackles last season but has struggled at times in coverage, and seemed to bust far more often than the other LBs last year when forced to play in space. He also enraged the walking hemorrhoid that is Mark Dantonio by plunging a tent spike into MSU’s field last year, so there’s that. Ross was always touted as a cerebral player but has struggled to keep his spot on the field, losing out to RJS last year (before reclaiming the spot) even though Stone didn’t necessarily drape himself in glory with playing time. Ross is also a bit undersized for the strong side LB, though his ability in coverage should help against spread teams.
I’m suspecting that Ben Gedeon sees a decent amount of playing time, especially given his reputed athleticism and the lack of playmakers along the defensive line; if there is someone who you’d bring on a delayed blitz, you could do worse than a 6-3, 241 lb bowling ball who a rocket strapped to his ass. Despite my reservations, this does feel like a position of strength for the team this year, and since I’m trying to stay optimistic I’ll leave concerns for the coming seasons for next year’s preview, wherein I’ll be too drunk off a Big 10 title to care!
Worst: Covering with 3
Off the bat, I am ecstatic with 3/4 of the defensive backfield. Jourdan Lewis was a revelation last year, and should be one of the best corners in the conference this year. He’s physically aggressive to a degree that belies his size, and his recovery speed led to some spectacular plays last year. He also had 2 INTs and 6 PD to go along with 39 tackles, which is more than a couple of LBs last year (ugh).
We all know about Jabrill Peppers and his exploits; beyond being the Hybrid Space Player on defense, he can move over to corner or safety in a pinch and probably be on the top 3-4 in the conference at those spots. A freak athlete that should have a nice, long NFL career, the only concern I have is that he missed parts of last year due to injury and might take a bit to get his feet under him. Retaining Mattison and not substantially altering the defensive schemes for the secondary should help, though. My only other concern is that there is a lot of pressure put on the kid to be the “next” Woodson by a portion of this fanbase, and so fans may be disappointed if he’s only really, really good this year. I know, a minor concern, and I fully expect him to be a highlight player each game.
As the mantra goes, boring safeties are great, and Jarrod Wilson is like watching freshly-painted walls dry while The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is projected on said wall in a loop. So Jarrod Wilson is going to be so much fun to not hear about this year, and Brad Pitt should probably stick to movies in which he ages chronologically.
The problem with the secondary is that you have to have a second cornerback, or a third safety, or some human being with enough speed to keep up with receivers flying down the field, trying to catch an oblong ball. And that’s where it gets a bit dicey for UM. Blake Countess leaving was a surprise, but at the time people figured he’d been passed by other players on the roster and that with Michigan’s focus on press coverage, Countess’s notorious troubles keeping up with receivers made him the odd man out. Then Wayne Lyons transferred from Stanford’s elite pass defense, and everyone though Michigan was set.
Yet, here we sit a couple of weeks before Utah and Michigan is apparently giving serious looks at converted safety Jeremy Clark and converted WR Canteen, to say nothing of Dennis Norfleet getting a shot at the position in the spring game. I know that Harbaugh loves to tinker with guys and see if any can make position switches for added depth, but I’m not loving the lack of clarity across from Lewis. Again, having Peppers means there’s no need to panic, and Delano Hill sounds like he could slide into a safety slot if necessary to free up Peppers and/or the team can play more nickel coverage with Lyons playing a bit more off the receiver. But these are all sub-optimal solutions, and the expectation seemed to always be that Lyons would take over for Countess. The fact that isn’t the case gives me pause even with the positive buzz you’ve been hearing about Clark and his athleticism.
I still think the secondary will be solid, but if that second corner spot remains in limbo, or Lewis goes down for any sustained period of time, it could derail much of the improvements expected by the front 7.
Best: Fielding 11
John Baxter believes in spread punting. He also believes in fielding 11 men virtually all the time on special teams. Those two factors make him a massive upgrade over the last regime, and that doesn’t get into the massive number of blocked kicks his teams have accrued over the years. It kind of sucks that Dennis Norfleet left right when he might actually have guys in front of him to block on returns, but whoever winds up returning kicks and punts should find it a marked improvement over the Hoke era.
I almost didn’t feel it needed to be said, but it wouldn’t be a Michigan season without the fans irrationally directing all their ire at a certain player for when the team struggles. In years past it was Stevie Brown, Obi Ezeh, Taylor Lewan, Devin Gardner, and Devin Funchess. Funchess, in particular, apparently kicked the puppies and stole the girlfriends/boyfriends of a large percentage of UM fans, as that guy couldn’t buy a break. It didn’t help that he clearly wasn’t 100% all season, but sometimes fans are carrying around flaming hammers and you best not look like a nail.
Part of me wants to believe that the Harbaugh enthusiasm will shield this team from that level of vitriol, but who the heck knows anymore. It isn’t worth speculating, but I am formally asking the readers of this column (and more generally this site) to remember that these are human beings playing a sport largely for your entertainment; they are also in their late teens/early 20’s. Cut them a bit of slack if they miss an assignment or drop a pass. They absolutely do give a shit about this team, and treating them like people with feelings would be fantastic!
Last year I predicted 8-4, 9-3 if MSU or OSU took a step back. Yeah…that didn’t really happen. MSU took a step “back” from the best defense in the country to just one of the best, and OSU won a bunch of games, I guess. I don’t know, I stopped watching after the Pizza Pizza Bowl.
MSU will obviously continue to be one of the better teams in the conference, but last year you saw the cracks in the armor, and though it is true that they were mostly abused by some of the best offenses in the country while shutting down the rest of the conference, that kind of papers over just how abused they were by OSU, Oregon, and Baylor. They gave up 49, 46, and 41 points in those three games, and this year they’ll have to deal with the loss of Ed Davis, a competent starter and maybe the first “major” player MSU has lost to injury during their run. Their offense is still quite good and so I don’t expect a huge dropoff in the win total, but it feels like a team that might be coming back to the pack a bit.
PSU survived their sanctions about as well as you could have expected, somehow discovering a dominating defense while fielding an offense that isn’t terrible. Hackenburg still doesn’t feel like the sure-fire NFL QB he’s touted as, and he does have a bit of Devin Gardner 2014 look behind that shaky line. Still, Franklin has been recruiting like mad, and it looks like they’ll be even more competitive in the near future.
OSU is the defending national champions, and 2014 was supposed to be the rebuilding year. They seem to have an all-conference player at every position, and Draftageddon was basically a Pokemon exercise of collecting as many OSU starters as you could. They’ll win a bunch of games and, barring losing all three QBs, should be in contention for a playoff spot.
The rest of the conference looks mediocre; there’s talent in pockets, but teams like Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Nebraska have to replace large parts of their offenses and have question marks at key spots.
As for Michigan, it’s going to be a bit rough this first year, even with MSU and OSU coming to town. On the road against a solid Utah team to start the year may not be that bad simply because of Harbaugh’s manic focus, and Oregon St. and UNLV shouldn’t be too tough. BYU seems like it’s reeling, but Taysom Hill looked like a Heisman contender last year before going down with injury, and like seemingly all BYU players is way older than you think (he’s 25). In 5 games last year he had almost 500 yards rushing and 8 TDs to go along with 975 yards passing and 7 TDs, completing almost 67% of his passes. He’s big, he’s fast, and until proven otherwise I’m not sure UM is built to stop that type of dual-threat option. Unless Harbaugh works some magic, UM is going to lose at least one of those games. Next up are Maryland and NW, which seem like winnable games against teams that are scuttling a bit. MSU follows that, and that feels like a competitive loss with the hope of Harbaugh trolling Dantonio into a catatonic state. Two weeks later it’s off to Minnesota for a rock contest, and you figure UM is due for a letdown against them, Rutgers, or IU. Going to Happy Valley, against that defense, is going to be a tough task, though by that point Hackenburg may be sitting on the sidelines in a full body cast. The showdown against OSU follows to end the season, and UM has played OSU about as tough as anyone these past couple of years. OSU will have come off playing MSU as well, so even if Meyer’s team is deep in the playoff hunt they might not be 100% going into that game.
So it’ll sound a bit of a downer, but this feels like an 7-5 team with the potential to go 6-6 and 10-2 with a 2011-type run of luck. If they look solid against Utah to open the season, I could absolutely see them winning 9 games this year, but I’ve been burned too often recently with optimism and there remain real questions at the skill positions and in the defensive backfield, to say nothing of the QB battle.
So thanks for reading this far. I hope to make these more specific and less of a general overview for specific games, and please feel free to leave comments below with suggestions. And yes, I forgot to put in a reference to professional wrestling. Oh wait…
This post was initially designed to be a "so far" diary because it was written right around the time the initial Harbaugh offer was made. Then the holidays happened, the narrative fluctuated a bit at the fringes but didn't change much, and now we basically have confirmation that It's Happening! So some of this might sound a bit more reserved than intended, but I tried to update it where I could. I am sure much more will be written, perhaps by me, as it relates to Harbaugh in the coming weeks. Still, I figured I have more than enough content to surround animated gifs and references to professional wrestling, late-90's movies, and funny dog pictures. So enjoy. Also, Harbaugh!
Best: Big Boy Pants
The absolute biggest concern I had coming into this coaching search was watching Michigan's athletic department flub, flounder, and fart its way through the process like it did in 2007 and 2011. In 2007 it was Bill Martin floating around on a boat, seemingly caught off guard by Lloyd Carr's decision to retire despite Carr saying he wanted to in 2006 and having to be convinced to give it one more go by both Martin and President Coleman. This of course led to Les Miles being asked about taking over for Michigan while preparing to play for the national championship, which looked pretty bad when it happened and looks even worse now given how disorganized the search turned out to be behind the scenes. At the time, I think most people figured it was just Herbstreit reporting rumors prematurely, and when Michigan wound up with Rich Rodriguez it felt like an irrelevant misstep at worst.
Then in 2011, with RR gone after a desultory bowl loss to the Fightin' Mullens (until this season probably his 3rd or 4th most-impressive victory in his career), we all expected Dave Brandon to, I don't know, not be an idiot and actually perform a legitimate coaching search for a viable replacement. It isn't worth rehashing here for the same reason I don't let the 1 train's doors slam shut on my fingers, plus there are so many rumors and half-truths (Harbaugh said yes, Brandon scared him away! Brady Hoke was Michigan's #1 choice after Harbaugh! My gawd King, is that Kirk "Puntasaurus" Ferentz's music!) that is is hard to ascertain fact from fiction. What we do know is that Michigan wound up with a guy with basically a .500 record who coached like one, save for a glue factory of horseshoes in his ass during the 2011 season.
Now, there have been a couple of themes throughout the past two coaching searches: a dogged preference for "Michigan Men" who can placate a calcifying segment of the fanbase that maybe doesn't think football stopped innovating in 1997 but absolutely thinks those changes don’t apply to Michigan, "Fort Schembechler " having so much palace intrigue and agenda-driven leaks that nobody had control of the narrative, and displaying some of the worst timing this side of a 2014 UM 2-minute drill. But probably the biggest theme over these past 2 coaching changes, and really of the last decade or so, is the second-rate nature of it all. For a university so renowned for its educational and research accomplishments, for proclaiming itself a "leader and best" in so many fields and backing it up, and for having one of the most storied athletic programs in college sports history, its search for a head man seemed to lack much in the way of foresight, professional execution, or, frankly, prestige. It isn't uncommon for teams to "settle" on a second or third option, but usually after a strong play for their first choice. With Michigan's most recent coaching transitions, though, it seemed like they thought "This is Michigan" was enough.
That's why this search, even with its extended googly-eyes session with Harbaugh, was so refreshing; it finally felt like the Powers That Be were treating this like a big deal and actually acted accordingly. While the exact terms might still be a bit in flux, $49M over 6 years represents the type of offer a school like Michigan should be making for the man who will spearhead its multi-million dollar football team. No pussyfooting around, not "preliminary offer" to get negotiations started. Hackett and co. looked at the landscape, identified Harbaugh as the top candidate, and made it rain.
For all of Dave Brandon's odes to marketing buzzwords and bottom-line business acumen, and Brady Hoke's passion for "Big Boy" football, they never seemed to willing or able to translate those words into results. It was Hackett, for what feels like the first time in an eternity, who actually acted like an executive, made a plan, and followed through on it efficiently and effectively. Even if by some insane confluence of events Michigan doesn't get Harbaugh, it won't be for lack of effort or resources; it'll be because Jim Harbaugh doesn't want to coach at Michigan in 2015. It'll be because he wants to remain an NFL coach, because he has "unfinished business", because billionaire private owners will pay him way more than a public state institution should ever, whatever. And Michigan will move on, not with a sense of desperation or befuddlement that the Block M and The Victors didn't seal the deal, but with some purpose. That's all I think most people want to see out of the AD, and though the jury's still out on Hackett being a long-term solution, there's a sense of confidence and competency displayed thus far that puts the similar efforts of Brandon and Martin to shame.
If you want to read my thoughts on the idea of Harbaugh coaching, go back and check out my OSU recap. Not a lot has changed, save that I am a bit more optimistic now that he's coming to Michigan with intentions on sticking around for a bit, with the siren song of the NFL less appealing than I first thought. I mean, there are options out there for him if he wanted to stick around in the pros (Jets and Chicago are big-market teams, while the Raiders are at least nearby), yet he's shown no real interest in doing so. This is obviously a great hire for Michigan, and it feels like, for once, a confluence of events has led to everyone involved finding each other as the best option. Given what has happened the past decade or so, that feeling of contentment shouldn't be discounted. Plus, it looks like he is going to breathe some fresh air into the program by bringing in people he's familiar with, including those with (Wheatley) and without (Durkin) connections to the university. That can only help clear out some of the lingering staleness of the recent past, and any concerns about lost "institutional memory" are pretty trivial given how dysfunctional this program has been with the stalwarts in place.
I will be a bit of a wet blanket on two fronts, though, as it relates to the hire. First, in the short term (i.e. the 2015 season), I'm not expecting an amazing turnaround, at least against the good-to-elite programs on the schedule. Michigan is going to play 3 Power-5 quality outfits in the OOC (BYU is an independent but would be in the upper-half of the B1G if they joined tomorrow), including opening at Utah. The Utes might be going through a coaching transition (they are already down a couple coordinators), but that's still a very good defensive team that should be competitive in the PAC-12 next year. They do get MSU and OSU at home, but good lawd is OSU terrifying offensively and MSU should be pretty solid offensively with Cook back in the mix to complement that stout defense. I think MSU's fall from elite to very good will continue, but this isn't the MSU-UM rivalry Harbaugh probably remembers (3-1 during his four years, including wins of 27-6, 31-0(!!), and 42-0(!!!)), and all the good vibes and memes aren't going to make the WRs any faster, the QB any more experienced, and the cornerbacks any better at sticking with receivers. Plus, Michigan is looking down the barrel of trips to PSU, Maryland, and Minnesota, so it isn't going to be the smoothest of transitions back to the college game for the new coach. I'm not predicting another 5-7 campaign, and there is A LOT that will change between now and early September, but it is going to be a multi-year process for Michigan to get back to being the "Michigan" Harbaugh helped create, and barring Harbaugh pooping golden horses with a million lucky golden horseshoes, I don't expect a repeat of Hoke's first year record-wise for Jim.
The second, slightly more far-reaching concern...okay, not "concern", but inevitable annoyance is going to be that this will likely not be Harbaugh's last dance with the NFL, which means I'd be surprised if he completes the full term of his current contract before leaving again for the NFL. As others have noted, this isn't a guy going back to college because he stumbled in the NFL, and there are always going to be doors open for him to return provided he is successful at Michigan. I have little doubt that he won't, which means in 3-4 years there are going to be legitimate murmurs about Harbaugh making a return to the NFL, hopefully fueled by multiple 10+ win Michigan seasons and a return to the upper-echelon of college football. You look at other successful programs and nobody is knocking down the door for Saban, Meyer, Fisher, Dantonio, etc., so at least they have one less distraction to deal with each offseason. I suspect virtually all Michigan fans will accept that bargain, but it is an ongoing din that will only get louder the better Harbaugh does at UM. My hope is that if/when he does move on, the program will be back to its normally stable position so that the next guy will have an easy transition and, heck, there might actually be a legitimate coaching tree by then. So in summation, this is totally awesome you guys!
Best: Stability + Desirability = Awesomeability
With news that D.J. Durkin was waiting on Harbaugh to go to Michigan before joining him as defensive coordinator, plus scattered reports of Swag Mattison sticking around at least one more year, Michigan is enjoying one of those rare occurrences (at least around these parts) of optimism and stability that are usually a hallmark of successful programs. Durkin has basically been sitting on the DC position at Texas A&M for a week, yet apparently wants to get the band back together with Harbaugh and should be a welcome addition. And yes, being a DC under a defensive coach like Muschamp brings with it the usual questions of how much influence he had at Florida, but this is still a guy with the trajectory of a top-notch assistant who'll be a head coach sooner rather than later.
With Mattison possibly returning, that should help stabilize recruiting a bit in the vacuum between now and Harbaugh getting on the road, and should help reaffirm a couple of wavering guys, to say nothing of the boost the trips will have once Harbaugh gets going. This will be a small class, but with a crack recruiter in a position of some authority, that will only help the transition. Again, it's a long way to even NSD, and most of the staff remains in limbo, but Michigan should enjoy the best of both worlds with this coaching change.
It isn't news to anyone on MGoBlog that the internet can be both your best friend and worst enemy when it comes, well, pretty much anything, but especially when something as "newsy" and ripe for misdirection and hearsay as a coaching search. For every legitimate insider report or guy who actually knows a guy, you'll read a dozen random Twitter handles with 10k tweets and 25 followers, and pages of forums posts fueled by someone's brother's girlfriend's sorority sister's dad's second cousin's landscaper's adopted uncle's burned-out podiatrist's receptionist's albino twin who ran into a junior associate in the athletic department at Meijer who was buying two 12-packs of Dr. Pepper (which we all know is Jim Harbaugh's 3rd favorite drink after Earl Grey tea and the tears of MSU fans OMGOMGOMG! It's Happening!), proclaiming to know what the future holds both in terms of the front-runner as well as the internal politics, backup plans, and related scuttlebutt that drives web traffic in the modern era well after the actual thing you should care about has been resolved. Obviously you can figure out who is right and who is wrong once you have some perspective, but the internet is kinda the wild wild west when it comes to rumors, and those first couple of weeks are just chock full of idiots wanting some attention.
And to make matters worse, social media and the clear NFL/CFB divide in terms of biases creates a whole new class of semi-informed, semi-credible pundits with the lowest barrier to entry probably since you could literally stand in the middle of a town square and yell whatever you wanted at people as they passed by.
On one hand, the ubiquity of the internet lets information be relatively "free" not only in terms of who possesses it but who can disseminate it quickly; you don't need to be a friend of Ed Werder, Jay Galzer, or Chris Broussard to be given a platform to be heard; a Twitter account and $10/mo. for a "premium" account is more than enough to tell the world what you know about a hot topic, sometimes well before more established voices catch wind of it. And that, to some, is incredibly valuable information that needs to be made available as soon as possible. And while I'm sure some print journalists still yearn for their own "Deep Throat" (I'll wait...) with an established paper trail of sorts, it's far more likely that the "first" source to report something will be some random guy, because random people have little to lose if they are wrong and lots to gain, even temporarily, if they are right.
But on the other hand, what it also creates is just wave after wave of bullshit to sift through for these few nuggets of actual wisdom. I joke about the circuitous route some rumors go through, but read some Reddit or 24/7 threads and it's just burner accounts from guys at airports, janitors on night shifts, and gym buddies telling you they heard from some "big money donor" or a "buddy" whose family knows someone that something big is going down, that some assistant is booking tickets to an airfield, that rooms are being repainted and new placards being designed, and all of a sudden you've got people freaking out or celebrating, while reporters and more trusted sources of information are left scrambling to verify while sifting through all the copy-cats and trolls. It's draining to watch as an observer, and I don't even need to give a crap. And along the way, people get burned enough that lines in the sand are drawn and opinions calcify, creating a certain level of acrimony and zealotry throughout the process that creates the perfect feedback loop, where anyone who says what you want to hear is credible and anyone else is lying, an idiot, or a troll.
This race for "scoops" also creates the shit-throwers like Gregg Henson and Football Scoop who basically "report" everything they can think of in the hope that enough of it is right that people forget everything else they make up. I mean, technically they are true, but Paul the Octopus also had a nice streak going but I don't remember him trying to drive traffic to his blog. And in virtually all cases, these same guys tried to inflate their numbers by claiming the most obvious things as "news" (Brandon to be fired! Michigan is looking at Harbaugh! Lots of money is involved!). I'm sure these guys had some "sources" as they were; you sniff around enough and someone will talk. But now every time one of these guys fires off some harebrained "insider scoop" about a team, they'll have that whiff of undeserved credibility.
I get that it doesn't really matter in the end; I doubt Jim Harbaugh even knows this exists, let along how many times it's been posted across the internet. But I get why lots of fans don't obsessively follow this stuff, those who will probably see an interview on ESPN or read an article on Yahoo! about Harbaugh coming to Michigan and say "that's nice" and forget about it until the fall. The end result never changes, and at least they didn't spend weeks getting worked up about an anonymous purchase order for Dockers in size "Awesome!" being found in the Ann Arbor dump.
Worst: No F*cking way League
So yeah, I'm bitching about all of the dubious stories coming out of the internet's nether-region, but most of them all pointed toward a single reality: Jim Harbaugh is going to be the next coach of Michigan football. Sure, some tales were painted of him torn between another run in the pros and returning to the college game, and that certain teams might also be in play, but the vast majority of the rumors, especially amongst those most connected and accountable, were positive on Michigan. Well, except one group...
With the NFL guys, you are dealing with people who basically all default to the NFL PR view, but with the critical distinction that some are willing to at least entertain the possibility of some other reality also being possible. With the Schefter type, they live and breathed The Shield for so long that it takes them a couple of weeks to cut through the fog, but at least they are at least willing to reexamine their sources and accept the alternative reality. It's infuriating because they've bought into the arrogant argument that coaching in the NFL is a one-way street until the League dismisses you, but given the levels of delusion we've seen from people in charge these past couple of years it's not surprising how potent that kool-aid can be.
Then you've got guys like Tim Kawakami and Greg Gabriel who, for lack of a better word, are just ignorant about anything outside of the worldview they've crafted over decades of sitting in media rooms talking to the same 10-15 people and passing off recycled dribble as interesting and thoughtful commentary. For them, questioning the NFL isn't even possible because it seemingly violates some hard-coded rule in their own lives; you don't deviate from the norm because that would be admitting failure or, worse, that the world is evolving in ways they aren't willing to accept. To a man, I suspect you'd get a similarly dismissive response if you asked them about the viability of "bloggers".
I'll admit to being biased, but beyond the money and whatever self-affirming gains you get from being at the "top" of your field, I don't see the appeal of an NFL gig anymore. You never have complete control of a team, regardless of your titles, because a billionaire owner/group can always make your life a living hell if they disagree, you have to deal with a bunch of men who make quite a bit of money (oftentimes much more than you) and don't usually like being yelled at by their boss, the level of transgressions tend to be higher and more severe in the pros versus college, and with few exceptions you are only as good as your last season. I mean, Harbaugh will be coming to UM after one of the most successful first-time runs in NFL history, and yet because Colin Kaepernick regressed and a couple LBs got hurt (Patrick Willis) or went kinda crazy (Aldon Smith), he is on the outs and the born-on-third/thought-he-hit-a-triple Jed York is leading the charge. Say what you will about meddling college presidents, but most of them are smart enough to stay out of coaching situations until their hands are forced, and with the AD acting as a firewall a coach is going to enjoy far more freedom in college than he'd have in the pros, to say nothing about recruiting and player development benefits. And in this case, Michigan is going to pay a competitive salary, one that treats Harbaugh as one of the best at his position. This is a long way of saying I don't think Harbaugh (who just got through the inevitable clown show that ends most NFL tenures) sees this as much of a demotion, and while there will still be a couple of NFL guys dying on their wrong swords of wrongness, hopefully by the time Jim Harbaugh is running spring practice a good 75-80% of the NFL reporters will admit that Michigan has a chance.
Regardless, I do think we'll see quite a few of these responses coming from that brood in the coming weeks.
Best: Puntasaurus Extinction?
Hold onto your butts, because with any coaching transition there are going to be changes. But probably none will be as necessary and welcomed as (I hope) Michigan's transition away from the dinosaur "pro" punt style that existed under Hoke. And really, it's extinction was a long time coming. It's the perfect blend of barely-there upside (slightly easier to fake out of) and huge downsides (huge yards available for returns, over-reliance on unpredictable hangtime, less flexibility to address aggressive pressure) that made it an eyesore when it was happening and looks even more insane in retrospect. It basically cost Michigan the bowl game against USC, let Utah's Clay strike the most unnecessary Heisman pose, and consistently gave up gobs of field position that, at best, put Michigan's defense in tough spots. Because of rule differences between the NFL and CFB you don't see the Shield punt formation in the pros, so I guess I'm not 100% sure that Harbaugh won't keep lugging out the tired Spread punt formation, but since he seems to have a functioning cerebral cortex I expect Michigan will go with the more effective and prevailing formation. And while that will be a good day for Michigan football, it'll be a sad day for the few remaining puntasauruses walking the earth. Maybe InGen will bring one of them back from the fossilized remains of Kirk Ferentz.
Oh...apparently I've been informed by Google that he's still alive and being paid to coach. My apology to Iowa fans.
Best: Nobody Else is Happy
There is a saying that you'll know how good/bad a guy is based on how his current fans talk about him and his departure. When a stud coach/player leaves, you'll typically read knowledgeable fans lament the loss and speak glowingly about his past accomplishments. When he's kind of a dud, everyone makes jokes and criticizes his failings. But an equally-useful gauge of a new hire's overall perception is how rival fans respond to him coming on board, and in this case it is pretty universal that, well, MSU and OSU partisans are having a bad time.
I won't link to specific threads, but go to their respective boards and you'll read a lot of "I can't wait to beat that smug look off his face" or "He's not that great anyway. Plus, it'll be years before he's good." Yes, there are rational fans who recognize that Harbaugh is a good hire, but these aren't the "hur hur you have a fat coach" stuff you heard when Hoke was hired. Harbaugh is going to piss off a lot of people and give plenty of "material" for rival fans to latch onto, but this feels like Michigan is "back", and coupled with OSU and MSU losing significant cogs on their staffs (Herman to Houston, Narduzzi to Pitt), you can see the ire ratcheting up for both fanbases that absolutely took pleasure in Michigan's recent struggles. At least with OSU, that team has been a premiere program for decades even when Michigan was at its height; this is a rivalry again, not a clear ascension. But MSU fans seem supremely upset specifically because a returning Michigan probably pushes them down a peg in the conference; they'll still be a tough out as long as Dantonio is there, but that first handshake between the two is going to extra salty, and with more and more teams starting to "figure out" MSU's defense (at least the elite offenses are; we'll get a good idea how they respond against Baylor), I get a sense that Spartan fans are seeing that door close.
Best: Did I Mention Harbaugh? Also, Finally We Can All Get Back to Our Lives!
My wife sent me this gif while I was typing this up. This pretty much sums up the last couple of weeks.
I contemplated not even writing this edition of the diary. Next week’s game is going to have way more meaning in terms of the end of a season, of a coaching staff, maybe of an era in Michigan football. This was just one of many infuriating games played by Michigan in recent years, and distinguishing it from, say, Iowa or Nebraska last year is mostly in the eye of beholder.
Worst: Of Pigs and Lipstick
Ever since Michigan beat PSU and then started winning consecutive games for the first time this season (sigh), there was a growing contingent of Michigan fans who started to argue that if Brady Hoke finished the season “strong” (typically with a win at OSU, though a close loss in the same vein as last year might suffice), culminating in a bowl win on or before Christmas, his services should be retained as head coach for next year.
The reasoning seemed to be three-fold: (1) there was no promise that Michigan would snag a top-flight replacement for Hoke (especially if a Harbaugh wasn’t in play), so why perform a lateral move (2) knowing very little about Hackett and Schlissel except that the former is a “Brandon guy” and the latter isn’t much for sports, did it make sense to entrust them with such a major decision on a compressed timeframe, and (3) 7/8 wins (including an upset of a major rival) were seen as some progress by the team and the staff, especially given the dearth of seniors on the team, and recruiting might pick up again with some certainty about the staff returning. I might be missing some other tertiary arguments, but the gist seemed to be that unless Michigan could get a slam-dunk replacement, it didn’t make sense to go through another rebuilding with an imperfect selection.
But the core of this argument was premised on the idea that Michigan would be showing meaningful improvement, and that’s the rub with this recent upswing: the team has played, and the staff has coached, just as shoddily as it had during the losses, only that the opposition somehow found ways to play even worse. Earlier this year, Devin Funchess said that wins and losses are just a “statistic”, in a way restating the maxim that if you perform consistently and steadily improve, the wins will follow in the long term, even if in the short term you might lose a game or two due to the vagaries of life and the sport. Well, the thing is that telling the difference between “bad luck” and “poor coaching” may be somewhat subjective, but if you keep having to divine the difference that is probably telling you something about the team.
Yes, there have been meager signs (mostly on defense, but also with the offensive line) that this program was playing better, especially given the fact that Indiana has since nearly upset PSU and held tough against OSU on the road, while Northwestern upset Notre Dame and then demolished Purdue to, improbably, set up for next week’s intra-state battle with the Illini as a battle of two teams playing for their bowl-game lives. They weren’t dominating wins, but if you squinted you could see something faintly resembling progress and improvement, and maybe with a new QB and some healthy running backs next year Michigan might be on its way “back”.
But all along, this team kept displaying the same numerous flaws that absolutely, positively shouldn’t be happening 50 games into a coach’s tenure. The offense remains painfully predictable, to the point that pointing this out is equally reflexive. The defense, while certainly the stronger unit during Hoke’s tenure, continues to play at a B+ level, seemingly never figuring out how to handle anything approaching tempo or a mobile QB. Barring a Biakabutuka-esque performance against OSU, Michigan won’t have a running back break 600 yards total on the season, and for the second year in a row won’t have one even sniff 1,000 yards total. Hell, Melvin Gordon and Tevin Coleman are going to significantly outrush this team as a whole, and that’s after dropping 292 yards rushing on Maryland in this game. Devin Gardner went from pre-season All Big-10-ish player to a guy who’ll probably not throw for 10 TDs on the season, and one of the best runs of the year was a 52-yard run by a FB on a fake punt. Timeouts continue to be called or saved without any regard for reality, and the team long ago ran out of feet to shoot with dumb penalties, incorrect number of players on the field, and turnovers. Oh my gawd the turnovers, King.
This game had all of those failings on display live and in technicolor, so even if Michigan had somehow pulled off the win and gotten bowl eligible, there’s nothing resembling real, sustainable progress by this staff and how that has translated to the team. A couple of ugly wins and the renewed potential for the team to scratch out bowl eligibility might have spackled over these cracks slightly, but this program remains a fundamentally flawed organization with a staff that seems unable to implement an holistic philosophy, or really any set of standards, necessary to win consistently. That 11-2 season always felt like an aberration, but even moreso after watching this program devolve for the past 3 seasons. It’s been an ugly downfall, and with this loss I have to think the end is near.
Best: Keeping ‘Em Clean
Another week, another strong performance by the offensive line. As noted above, Michigan put up 292 yards against Maryland on only 45 caries, which works out to a nice 6.5 ypc. Of course, 52 of those yards came on Kerridge’s run in the first quarter, but even excising that you are still looking at 5.5 ypc. Furthermore, TFLs were held to a minimum (6 total), with only 2 sacks allowed and Gardner seemingly being given ample running lanes to escape the pocket if necessary. Gardner had his best game this season by far running the ball, averaging nearly 6 yards a carry and breaking out a couple of nice stutter-steps on Michigan’s lone TD drive. Pass blocking held up, and though Gardner’s numbers were, again, pretty abysmal, they were not due to excessive pressure or a shrinking pocket. So that’s nice, I guess.
The line is far from perfect, but it has displayed the type of gradual improvement you expect from young players getting accustomed to each other. It lacks the certifiable NFL-quality stars we saw last year with Lewan and Schofield, but everyone should be back next year and there is solid depth behind them, so the next coaching staff will have more pieces to work with than Hoke had when he took over.
What is a bit sad is that had Gardner had this level of protection last year, I’m not sure the broken shell of a man we’ve seen this year exists. He’d still make some bad decisions, but you can see him flinch and lose focus when the pocket even gets compressed slightly, and that seemingly is due in part to being under constant duress last year behind whatever that was in front of him in 2013. Al Borges seemingly did him few favors these past couple of years in terms of coaching and development, but as we’ve seen this year at Penn State, any QB working under the constant threat of helmetical annihilation is going to play poorly. It also gives me small hope that next year, Morris and the cadre of running backs will perform reasonably well when not matched up against the MSU’s of the world.
Best: Going Out With a Bang
If this was Brady Hoke’s last home game as a Michigan head coach, he at least pulled out all the stops in trying to win it. The fake punt was a great call, particularly given the fact Michigan was going for it on the previous 4th-and-1 before Smith’s false-start penalty drove them back 5 yards. This being 2014 and Michigan being what they are, they settled for a FG attempt that was then blocked but ricocheted in, but at least it was an early attempt to “manufacture” points in a game that turned out to be a slog.
I also thought Michigan’s decision to go for it on the two other 4th-down plays were the right calls, particularly the 4th-and-6 in the third quarter that might have warranted a penalty call. And I suspect that had Michigan not given up an 11-yard sack on 3rd down from Maryland’s 5 yard line, they probably would have gone for the TD at that juncture as well. At his best, Brady Hoke has always been a bit of a gambler, though he’s seemingly been less so this season. Though it didn’t turn out to matter, it was at least refreshing to see him go back to those ways in this game.
Worst: Not Every Atomic Dog Has His Day
All season it felt like Dennis Norfleet was one block, one crease away from taking a punt back for a score. So there Michigan was, having recently taken the lead on Gardner’s nifty rushing TD and forced Maryland to punt. The ball seemingly bounced harmlessly in front of Norfleet, and he seemed content to let the Terrapins down it. Then, with a little shimmy, he picked the ball up on the bounce, jetted past a couple of flat-footed defenders, and shot past the punter for a TD and some much-needed breathing room. It would be the play that broke Maryland’s back and help secure Michigan’s win.
But of course, that isn’t the fairy-tale ending to this game because this is 2014 and Michigan football has apparently done a Freaky Friday-style switch with mid-2000 MSU. No, instead Michigan gets called for a dubious block-in-the-back penalty (seriously, it was basically a one-handed semi-shove on a guy barely on the screen), and gets booted off the field on 4th down. Maryland then ties the game on the next drive and goes on to win.
Norfleet will be a senior next year and (hopefully) will have a moment to shine, but this reversal was backbreaking in more ways than one.
Worst: When There Isn’t Anything Else to Say
Man, I want to have a fresh take on Devin Gardner, but I’m not sure there is one anymore. He barely threw for 100 yards, completed a shade over 50% of his throws, threw a tipped INT, and either threw just ahead/behind his receivers a half-dozen times or hit them right in the numbers just to see the ball get dropped. It was a sad Senior Day but also a bit fitting given the year he’s had thus far. It just stuns me that this Devin Gardner’s first home game as a starter was highlighted by this sequence:
And his final game in Ann Arbor didn't feature a completion longer than 23 yards, which practically qualifies as airing it out in this offense. Let’s just move on.
Worst: Catch the Damn Ball
What started off as basically Iowa last year has become a bit of an epidemic, especially recently with Devin Funchess. There were absolutely a couple of balls that were too far ahead/behind him to be considered catchable, but for the umpteenth game this year Funchess dropped a couple of very catchable balls that could have extended drives or bailed out his QB. I won’t recount every instance because, well, I still have a shred of humanity I’m trying to hold onto and I’m not inclined to rag on college kids too much, but suffice it to say that there were balls a purported first-rounder should have caught, and coupled with the anemic play-calling (we need to stop expecting the coaches to try to exploit any size advantages they may have with Funchess because if they aren’t going to throw a f*cking jump ball over a 5’ 7” guy, it ain’t going to happen ever), it’s been the opposite of the breakout year people expected.
The rest of the WRs continue to be uninspiring, with Canteen dropping a TD and nobody getting separation against one of the many “meh” secondaries in the conference. I’m sure there will be improvement next year, but you got me stumped from where given what we’ve seen this year.
I wish I could divine something greater here, but it was another okay performance that started off great but then faltered as the game progressed. Michigan largely held Maryland in check in the first half, with a trio of FGs to show for their efforts, including one a short field following Gardner’s INT. But in the second half, C. J. Brown just kept running the ball and Michigan consistently gave up the edge, and when Michigan tried to compensate he found receivers wide open for first downs. Michigan seemed to have no counter to the most predictable playcalls in the world, and yet they were a questionable spot on a 3rd down and a busted coverage by Raymon Taylor away from keeping the game tied at the end.
Bolden and Ryan were everywhere, and even without Clark in the lineup Michigan was able to get some pressure on Brown and slow down the running game for long stretches of the first half. Maryland didn’t try to throw the ball much until late in the game, but Lewis seemed to be in decent coverage most of the night and Taylor had that one bust on a fake WR screen but nothing else that felt egregious. Lewis’s big snafu was the running-into-the-kicker penalty that led to Maryland’s game-tying TD. Now, I’m not sure if the coaches told Lewis to go for the block or he called that on his own, but the risk-reward for blocking a chip-shot FG attempt by one of the best kickers in the country seemed pretty high against, and it turned as 4-point Michigan lead into a tied game. But given all of the bad decisions this year, it’s hard for me to drag up much more bile.
It’s a solid unit with inconsistent performances, coached by knowledgeable guys who seem unable to deal with a mobile QB or anyone who doesn’t respect the sanctity of the play clock. Again, the next staff will find a lot of talent in the cupboard; hopefully they’ll get more out of it.
Worst: Rivalry Week
Being a Michigan fan means I’ll be rooting for them to beat OSU, but as a human being who watches football, I don’t really see a way this isn’t doesn’t get ugly. OSU isn’t a great team, and I think they’re much closer to the squad that struggled against PSU, Minny, and IU in recent weeks than the one that obliterated MSU a couple of weeks ago. But they absolutely have the type of offense that can carve up Michigan, and no performance this year gives me any hope that Gardner and co. will be able to recreate last year’s fireworks. It’ll be close for a bit because it’s a rivalry game, but it will be a miracle if Michigan can escape Columbus with a win.
I will say, and not that the team should or would care, but I kinda hope the seemingly-annual pre-game fight at midfield doesn’t happen this year. The last team this 5-6 squad needs is a meaningless “tough guy” stomping on the midfield logo or whatever usually sets this stuff off. I’m sure it will happen, but when you’ve only beaten OSU 3 times since Y2K, it might be time to try something new.
Two or three more games. Two or three more games.
Worst: That's No Moon
It was just a terrible game. And it just sucked all around for both teams, particularly on offenses. Devin Gardner had the worst passing performance this year against the Wildcats, and that includes an under-fire Christian Hackenberg, the yipp-tacular combined efforts of Wisconsin QBs, and whomever was the 8th-string walk-on Poli Sci QB who took the last three snaps of NW's preseason scrimmage. He threw 2 really bad INTs, had a couple more passes that should have been picked (including one that should have been taken to the house to end the first half), and never looked comfortable with any of his receivers. I cannot stress how bad of a performance this was; I will always defend Devin Gardner in aggregate, but in this game Michigan could have replaced him with a trebuchet made out of Gatorade bottles, athletic tape, Ro*Tel cheese, and Haas avocados and gotten a more complete performance out of a field general. I hope something comes out during this off week that he's injured, that he lost a contact in the first quarter and didn't have a free pair, that an international cabal is holding someone he cares hostage, something to explain how he went 11/24 for 109 yards and 2 interceptions, resulting in a QBR rating of 5.2. To put that into perspective, Joel Stave's 8/19-115 yards-1 TD/3 INT performance against NW was a 10.1.
Devin Funchess dropped at least 3 extremely catchable balls by my count while seemed disinterested in the whole proceedings, to the point that even the announcers were pointing it out. Wile had a kick blocked to end the half, Michigan was stopped on 4th-and-1 because Smith couldn't follow a block, and Funchess "fumbled" a ball after Miller bounced it off his chest as he motioned before the play. And while De'Veon Smith had himself a nice game running the ball (121 yards/6.7 ypc/1TD), the team as a whole only recorded 100000000b total yards, which were 17 yards less than Trevor Siemian had throwing the ball. At halftime, Michigan had 4 punts and 6 FDs, and I was surprised they even had that many.
NW kept pace with the suck, though, by recording 12 yards rushing the ball, flubbing multiple punts and a FG attempt, throwing a pair of picks, fumbling the ball away on a punt return with no Michigan player within 5 yards, and failing on a couple of 4th-down conversions. The Wildcats were able to move the ball in fits and spurts, usually with short passes to Kyle Prater and, later, Toby Jones, but this was still an offense that had barely cracked 100 yards total before their last two drives. I don't even blame them for going for the win at the end of the game, as the last two drives were the only consistent offensive performances of the day by either sides, so might as well see if you can ride the wave of semi-competency for a couple more yards and a win.
Worst: Number 98 and DVR
I talked about this above, but I want to stress something about this particular performance by Gardner.
For various reasons (read: 1-year-old kid and new, time-consuming job), I've been watching the bulk of this year's B1G conference games on DVR. On one hand, this has been a godsend in terms of speeding through games; I can skip through the commercials, the trite analysis from guys in the booth being fed a narrative in their ears, the interminable replays that seem to always end with the refs sticking with the ruling on the field because the only angle they seem to have is a reflection off of a lineman's helmet. Since I have the general play-by-play from the game via ESPN and no need to analyze each 2-yard run for blocking assignments, I'm free to focus on only the meaningful drives and rewatch the memorable moments. It doesn't mean I don't "watch" the other parts of the game, but I can zip through the 3-and-outs that feature the same predictable runs and poorly-thrown balls without worrying about anything important happening.
Now, the negative of seeing the games hours later is that I'm watching it a bit more dispassionately; I know the outcome, so like in wrestling when you know the finish, you aren't as drawn in by the close finishes. It also means that I know Gardner isn't going to "turn it around" after a couple of bad passes, that he isn't going to start hitting his receivers in stride or stop locking onto them as soon as they break the huddle. Instead, I have to settle in for 3+ hours of poor mechanics, off-center throws, and a guy who looks lost out there trying to not bungle away a game that Northwestern keeps trying to hand over.
I do think he'll be better in two weeks, simply because he couldn't be much worse. Funchess looked lost out there as well, and for all of Norfleet's shortcomings he is still a missing weapon that Gardner has built up some rapport with over the years. And there were a couple of nice throws, usually to Darboh, and maybe with a couple of weeks to recover he'll be more inclined to run in situations when the defense is begging him to take the cheap yards they are handing out. But it isn't news to say Gardner's broken, and this game reaffirmed just how bad it is.
And of course, the worst part is that he's probably still the best QB option on this team. Morris has looked lost every time he's been given the ball, and next year he'll be a true junior (!!) with 2 starts to his name and (most likely) his third offensive coordinator in as many years. Maybe Speight will be better than advertised or Malzone will pull a Henne and be a freshman starter, but right now the QB position at Michigan looks dire both this year and in the foreseeable future. In fact, I suspect I'll be looking back at this year's QB performance with forlorn admiration midway through the 2015 season. It's crazy to remember how dynamic and exciting Gardner seemed when he started his first game against Minnesota 2 years ago, and how little of a shell of that player remains.
Credit should be given to the Michigan offensive line, which kept Gardner mostly clean (no sacks recorded) and opened up some good rushing lanes for the backs (mostly Smith), to the tune of 155 yards at 4.6 ypc. As expected, Drake Johnson couldn't replicate last week's career game, but the rushing attack minimized TFLs and helped grind down the clock on what turned out to be the game-winning FG. In fact, if it feels like the running game is significantly better than last year, you aren't alone: compared to last year's abysmal 3.3 ypc, this year's 4.5 ypc is basically OSU mixed with NOX, even more impressive given how little Devin Gardner has been used in the running game so far. It probably wouldn't fit Brady Hoke's definition of "tough guy" football, but Michigan has a semi-competent rushing attack that has been good about not getting caught behind the sticks too much.
Unfortunately, Michigan's passing offense has taken a dramatic step back, to the tune of 6.3 ypa (last year it was 8.2), and with 2-3 games to go Michigan doesn't even have half as many passing yards as last year's squad. I know losing Gallon hurt the team's spacing and put more pressure on Funchess and some of the younger players to create space, but this fall from semi-competence to debacle is stupefying given the personnel and experience out there. Yes, Gardner has been off most of the year, but as I mentioned last week it doesn't seem like anyone can get open or generate many yards after the catch, which creates this vicious feedback loop where Gardner has to make tough throws in short timeframes on these long, meandering drives, which ratchets up the stress on everyone involved and seems to numb Gardner's natural instincts. This passing offense should be better, and next year when Funchess is likely gone and Michigan is trotting out Darboh, Chesson, and a combination of Canteen, Harris, and freshmen du jour, it's not going to be fun in the slightest.
One final note - after the Michigan game I stuck around to catch part of the OSU-MSU game. A piece of me dies watching Urban Meyer trot out a first-year QB and RB combo and just dismantle a pretty good MSU defense. It's just so damn easy because it makes sense to force defenses to play left-handed, and yet for some reason Michigan seems to think they can tire out good defenses by just keep taking that right cross until the defense gets tired. Or, in picture form, this:
Best: The Defense (minus 2 drives)
The line was beaten up a bit by a bruising MSU rushing attack that apparently was on a mission to defend the sensibilities of an easily-offended nitwit and to teach the Wolverines a lesson about proper groundskeeping protocols, but the front 7 really showed up in this game. Frank Clark had a billion pass breakups at the line, including one that led to Goden's INT, and 1.5 sacks, and looked like an NFL draft pick out there. His bull rush on the 2-point conversion just bulldozed the tackle as well as Jackson, and watching Siemian just fall down because he expected not to be running up the butt of his line was the perfect end to a great day by Clark. Ojemudia chipped in with 2 sacks himself, though 1 was basically the definition of a "coverage" sack, and Henry was out there again creating havoc at the line. Glasgow carried on the St. Kovacs tradition with another competent performance, and again, 12 total yards rushing after NW had established that as the only competent component of their offense in previous games is damn impressive.
I thought Bolden and Ryan played reasonably well against the run, and while coverage wasn't great all day nothing broke big anywhere, which is basically a victory right now. Taylor was picked on early and late by Prater, and there were a couple of throws by Siemian that must have occurred when Brian was watching because the windows were basically portholes he threaded.
Even the last couple of drives when NW got it going were just a series of short passes and runs strung together; I would call them "disconcerting" but this defense has brain farts like this enough, and the season is so mercifully close to ending, that I've just come to accept them. Michigan's continued fear of being beat over the top creates a world in which Prater and Jones were given 7-yard cushions on 1st-and-10 in the second half, but at the same time your corners are expected to stay with these guys and, at least in this game, it didn't seem like Taylor could stay in contact consistently with his man.
Fitzgerald helped a bit kicking the FG deep in Michigan territory, but I'm kinda picking at nits here. This isn't a dominant unit and the top-10 rankings seem like hand-waving MATH more than actual, objective performance on the field, but a competent offense would have put this game out of reach early and this defensive effort would have looked even more dominant as a result. This is probably the best overall performance by the unit all season (maybe MNTM, but this is a Power 5-ish team here, on the road), so if the coaches are one the way out this at least feels like the best effort they could have expected. And given how meh Maryland has looked against good defenses this year, maybe the defenders will put forth one final encore before OSU eats their lunch in Columbus.
Worst: Road Warriors
So, yeah, this team is suffering from the rare condition that doesn't allow them to look remotely competent on the road. The last time Michigan looked like it could win convincingly outside of the Big House [EDIT: I don't know why I said ND last year; it was ND in 2010. Drink that up for a moment], and I'd say the best performance this year was in the loss to Rutgers, otherwise known as the game where Gary Nova threw for 400 F*CKING YARDS! It isn't news to say performance like this are an indictment of Brady Hoke's coaching, but it shocks me that the offense looks incredibly feeble going up against a NW defense that was lit up for 48 points by Iowa last week. I get that Evanston has been a bit of a house of horrors in recent years despite Michigan winning a couple of them, but anyone who thinks that Brady Hoke can win out to save his job just needs to look at games like this to see that that ship should have already sailed. He isn't going to the Horseshoe or even East Lansing and playing games like this; there were more Michigan fans in the stands that Wildcats, and yet Michigan played they were in Death Valley. His teams barely scrape by on the road, and the fact we are still talking about them struggling in these games 4 years into his tenure is unacceptable.
Best/Worst: No Horrible Coaching This Week?
Maybe my expectations have been permanently recalibrated, but I didn't see any particularly egregious examples of bad game management/coaching in this game by Michigan. Yeah, there were some questionable defensive calls on that last drive, but they weren't "boneheaded" as much as just bad playcalls that, sadly, lots of college coaches make. The offense didn't execute well, but there were a number of plays that should have broken big and were the right ones to make given the situation - in particular, I remember a 2nd-half pass to Funchess that would have gone for an easy score had Gardner not thrown it late.
Clock management was fine for what it was, and even the blocked FG at the end of the half was the right call if just depressing. In a perfect world Michigan could have been a bit more aggressive with three 1st-half possessions in NW territory, but with has bad as the offense looked and as good as the defense was playing, it made sense to keep the variance low and just try to grind out a win. It was ugly, but compared to previous weeks it was competently so.
Worst: The Team vs. this team
While I am on the record for not being the biggest fan of the Cult of Bo around these parts, I do recognize the selfless nature called upon in his "The Team, The Team, the Team" mantra. The point being made is that what matters is the team, not the individuals, and that playing as a cohesive unit with a singular purpose will lead to success. It's a bit simplistic, but as a rallying cry it makes sense for a football team.
As a Michigan fan, I've always cheered for the laundry in a sense; I obviously like and know the intricate details of most teams, but I'm a fan of "Michigan" more than I am of an particular squad. I want Michigan to win every game, with all the irrational fandom that entails. So when Michigan squeaked out this game against Northwestern and are basically in a one-game playoff to make a lower-tier bowl game, I was excited because I want Michigan to win games and go to bowls. Beyond the palace intrigue of Brady Hoke's continued employment (I'm of the belief that he's been gone since the day Brandon stepped down, and only in a world where he had beaten MSU and OSU could he have gotten a reprieve) and how wins affect the odds of him being retained, the Team winning more games and finishing on a high note is all I want.
That said, this particular team is really hard to root on to a bowl game. Now, this in no way is a reflection on the players or coaches; by all accounts this team is full of nice people who are trying their best, and in some ways they are one of the more endearing clubs simply because they've survived so much controversy and insanity. But as a football team, they are just so bad at some many parts of the sport that them making some crappy bowl embodies a lot of what is wrong with college football. It's a team that probably won't beat anyone better than "meh" all year going to a cash-loser bowl game at Yankee Stadium or Ford Field because of "ratings" and because guys in sports coats say they should and will give each player used copies of GTA IV and Fat Heads of Bernie Williams for their dorm rooms as a "goody" bag. Sure, I get all of the benefits of another game (more practices, a reward for the hard work the players, seniors going out on top, marginal improvement in recruiting), but it just feels, well, wrong for a team this flawed and mediocre to be playing another game. This season has been a disappointment to the nth degree, and finishing 7-6 without a credible win on the docket feels like a cheat, a way to game the system because nobody was paying attention.
I guess my point is that as a Michigan fan I want to see them go 7-6 or (heaven forbid) 8-5, but it just doesn't feel right based on this team's performance on the field all year. This is more an indictment of college football than Michigan in general, but it's still disconcerting.
Best: Bye, Bye, Bye!
So another week to relax and, sigh, get ready for the biggest game of the year against Maryland. Michigan absolutely has to win against the Terrapins, which again, sigh, because they aren't going to go to Columbus and "shock the world". Win next week and I'll be getting my Metro North tickets to Yankee Stadium; lose and I'll start download FlightTracker on my phone.
This is going to be an abbreviated Best and Worst. First off, I've just survived a weekend of family celebrating both my wife's and my daughter's birthdays, so I finished watching the DVR of the game about an hour ago. Plus, I'm dying right now of a sinus headache, the type that makes you wonder just how bad the longer-term damage would be to drill a teeny-weeny hole in your skull to release the pressure. Plus, it's IU, Michigan is 4-5, and they just fired Dave Brandon and Brady Hoke is pretty much doomed to follow. What happened on the field isn't really important.
Best: Michigan Won! And, Like, By A Lot of Points!! More Than the Spread!!!
By my own back-of-an-envelope calculations, this is the first time Michigan has done that to a Power 5 team since the Truman administration. That's the Marshall Plan for ya!
The game was never really in doubt when it became clear Indiana wasn't going to throw the ball forward, and with a 17-0 lead going into the half it was kinda, what's the word, "relaxing" to be watching a Michigan football game. For future reference, I want to feel this way again sooner rather than later.
Worst: The Part Where I Kinda Defend Dave Brandon
So yeah, something else happened in conjunction with this game.
The big news at the end of the week was David Brandon's resignation/peaceful surrender/It's not me, it's you as athletic director at the University of Michigan. Obviously, this comes as a shock to everyone.
What was a bit surprising was the speediness in which the change was made; while I doubt the two are related, within a week of MGoBlog's release of Dave Brandon's Live Journal-esque email screeds, the pizza baron was out of office and early reports have them looking hard at Jim Phillips at Northwestern amongst other targets, which seems to be a departure of sorts from the "Michigan Man" ties that drove previous searches and comprised the initial "wish lists" for Brandon's replacement. This is good for the University and, frankly, for Brandon; I certainly don't want to work at a place where a large number of people actively despise me, and I'm sure he'll rest easy on his pile of money, with many beautiful ladies.
But as (apparently) one of the resident contrarians/apologists for Dave Brandon as AD, I don't take much joy in his firing. He needed to go because he failed the most basic tenet of being an athletic directory, the same rule that offensive linemen are told: keep your name out of the newspapers. If you are doing your job well, nobody should be talking about you until the end of the year when you collecting your team awards and QBs are talking about how they owe you a steak dinner and a nice watch after the Pro Bowl.
Dave Brandon the man became a PR circus, mishandling so many public elements of his job that it almost felt like he was doing it on purpose. He kept trumpeting "dynamic pricing" of tickets while outright lying about attendance figures, he helped whittle away Michigan's voluminous waitlist by driving away large swaths of diehards with seat "donations" and screwy point systems, he messed around with gameday traditions and neutered the band in favor of Special K rocking the Big House with some of your favorite Deja Vu jams, and always, ALWAYS doubled down on bad decisions with condescension and general assholeness. In particular, his handling of the football team and it struggles, highlighted this year by Morris's concussion fiasco and the rally, destroyed whatever residual goodwill he still had with most fans.
Still, what continues to bother me about the discussion surrounding his firing is the pervasive argument that Brandon's tenure was not beneficial to Michigan athletics in general, which I'm not sure is (a) true, (b) measurable, and (c) relevant to his firing. As I stated earlier, Brandon had to go because he kept screwing up publicly and the cash cow was hemorrhaging support and money.
Measuring Brandon's tenure as it relates to other sports is difficult because so many factors are legitimately beyond his control and/or difficult to quantify. Brian tweeted the following:
BTN discussing how awesome Brandon's done with other sports. Top 5 Directors Cup finishes, 1999-2009: 10. Since: 1. — mgoblog (@mgoblog) October 31, 2014
The argument being made was that before Brandon arrived, Michigan was an elite athletic institution across a variety of sports; it wasn't just a "football factory" that failed to live up the dual ideals of amateurism and Title IX equality. Yet once his MBA-fueled policies took hold and he started to replace the institutional memory of the athletic department, the other non-revenue sports were marginalized and suffered.
First off, I question the premise that the Directors Cup is a good barometer of an athletic department's overall health and well-being. When Stanford is riding a John Wooden-esque 19-straight titles because they are really good at golf and water polo while sports like basketball, hockey, and wrestling are ignored, you have to wonder a bit about the system's efficacy.
So I went through and compiled a list of Michigan's finishes in the final standings since 1999, with the highest-scoring sport included.
|2009||5||M. Golf/W. Water Polo|
|2010||25||W. Water Polo|
So what I see is a school that was pretty good at Women's Rowing and Softball in the early 2000's, consistently finishing in the top 10 with one outlier in 2006. Then the year he took over, the school suffered through a pretty terrible run at the selected sports (a dip highly unlikely to have been affected by Brandon's nascent hiring), and has since trended upwards, reaching #4 despite their national championships in Men's swimming & diving and gymnastics not counting in the final tally. Rankings aren't complete for 2014, so there might be some softening. Still, if you read the chart it sure looks like Brandon stepped into a leaky ship and helped plug the holes, though not being deeply knowledgeable of the various other sports at UM, I can't say for sure.
And on an interesting sidenote, here is a breakdown of the national championships Michigan has claimed over the same span, broken up by BD (Before Brandon) and AD (After Brandon)
Number of National Championships from 1999-2009: 3
M Gymnastics: 1999
Field Hockey: 2001
Number of National Championships from 2010-2014: 4
M. Gymnastics: 2010, 2013, 2014
M. Swimming and Diving: 2013
My point isn't to make an argument that Brandon should have been retained because the gymnastics team suddenly got better, only to argue that Dave Brandon's official job was to be the Athletic Director for the ENTIRE University, and on paper it looks like he wasn't doing a half-bad job. The basketball team had just suffered through a 15-17 season after a promising return to the tournament in 2009-2010, and there were rumbling that Brandon might need to remove Beilein and go select one of "his" guys. Yet he stuck with a guy he inherited from the last administration, helped to improve facilities, and now Michigan is one of the most consistent basketball programs in the country. Conversely, the hockey team has gone into a talespin recently under Red, and yet it doesn't appear Brandon put much pressure on Berenson to turn the ship around or ship out.
Maybe with Brandon gone we'll hear from the other programs about his tenure from their perspective; my guess is that most will say he was fine to work with, gave them the resources they needed to be successful, and mostly stayed out of the way. We keep hearing condemnations from "friends of John Bacon" that Michigan's financials were in shambles and Brandon should be fired for that, and yet the Michigan brand is, by virtually any metric, still one of the most marketable and profitable out there, doubly impressive because of the state's meager economic assistance and the poor performance of the football team in years past. Making money is a major part of an AD's responsibility, and the guy who takes over for Brandon is probably continue a number of his policies, though probably with less fanfare. It isn't breaking news that college sports are "big business", and anyone expecting the next AD to be a radical departure from this core outlook is probably going to be disappointed.
So I guess my point is that Dave Brandon had to be fired because he had a number of very public flameouts, and when people are marching on your boss's lawn calling for your head it's time to pack up the framed footballs and retire to your floating island or wherever guys like Brandon hang out. But I don't know if he was a bad athletic director in totality, and the fact that doesn't matter in the final calculus of his firing shouldn't invalidate the positives he did at UM.
Best: The Gooch
Back to football, Indiana has a freshmen linebacker on their team called Greg Gooch. He didn't seem to chart, but I couldn't help seeing his name without remembering one of my favorite part-time characters on Scrubs.
Worst: The Offense is Still Broken
Yes, Michigan just put up 404 yards on Indiana, and recorded both their first 200-yard passing game of the year (!) and first 100-yard rusher game in the B1G since the last time UM played IU (!!), but man is it hard to get excited. For one thing, Indiana has a turrible defense that gives up huge plays to everyone, yet Michigan's longest play was a 34-yard strike to Darboh that featured Gardner having to bypass the rush, step into a lane, stutter-step about a million times, and still have to throw a tight throw to Amara as he finally shook off the IU defensive back. It was a good play and helped get Michigan in position for an opening score, but Jeremy Gallon had 369 yards receiving on his own last year against effectively the same IU defense, including multiple 50+ yard receptions. It remains an offense bereft of "playmakers", which I know is absolutely the most cliche thing to say but is kinda true.
If you look the offensive drive efficiency for NFL offenses, you see that the best teams score quickly and with (relatively) few plays. It makes sense intuitively, as dinking-and-dunking your way down the field requires your offense to execute multiple times successfully, which as anyone with a basic understanding of probability knows that success rates tend to go down the more times you tempt fate. Looking at Michigan's first couple of meaningful drives, you see these long 8+ play drives that are littered with short gains and the occasional long-ish run or completion but nothing really explosive. It worked because it was Indiana and Drake Johnson had a career game (more on that later), but when your longest plays of the year so far are 62-yard and 61-yard runs by Green and Smith against App. St. to start the season, and your future 1st-round WR has a season long of 43 yards on an ill-timed bomb that probably should have been picked off by the PSU safety, you can't read TOO deep into a semi-breakout day. Last year's offense was way more boom-or-bust, but this year's "consistent muck" probably wasn't what everyone hoped for when Michigan made a change at offensive coordinator.
Meh: Gardner, Again
Just copy-paste one of my sections about Gardner from any diary this year. Nothing has changed. He's broken, not in a way that can't be fixed, but in a way that nobody at Michigan, in the next 4 games, is going to come close to accomplishing. Sadly, he'd be the perfect QB for an Urban Meyer or a Chip Kelly offense, a guy who can outrun most defenders and throw the ball effectively enough to keep them honest. He's a sunk cost, a broken wagon wheel dipped in dysentery on the Oregon Trail of 2014 Michigan football.
Best(?): Disney's The Drake Johnson Story
First off, that was a legit good performance by Johnson, even with the opponent factored in. He looked confident, made decisive cuts, broke some tackles, and had a couple of bursts that reminded people he was a pretty accomplished hurdler at Pioneer. Once De'Veon Smith left the game with an injury, Johnson stepped in and turned a close-ish game into a blowout, and as noted before had the first 100-yard performance against a conference opponent in about a year. Plus, being a hometown kid performing so well on Homecoming, after such a tumultuous week, is a great story and one he'll probably remember forever.
That said, I have no expectation that he (or this team) will be able to reproduce this running effort against anyone else on the schedule save (maybe) Northwestern, but even that might be generous. It has literally been years since Michigan had anything approximating a consistent running game, and that was mostly because of the threat of Denard in the backfield. With Gardner still nursing an injured ankle and the coaches consciously not asking him to do much on the ground, this 184 yards feels like the end of a movie that probably won't have any more sequels this year.
Best: The Mendoza Line
This is the second team Michigan held a team under 200 yards of total offense (the other Miami [NTM]), and 75 of those came on IU's 2nd-to-last drive of the game. I know IU is starting 18th-string freshmen and Buffy sidekick Zander Diamont, who has thrown something like 23 passes for 35 yards in his career, but holding superback Tevin Coleman to a shade over 100 yards even with those garbage carries is impressive. Yes, everyone knew that IU had exactly two good players on offense - Coleman and Wynn - and so the defense was able to shift its formations to shutting down those two players, but it is still pretty impressive that the defense was actually able to execute as well as it did.
It's hard to tell if the unit is "good" or not, since they alternately kick offenses off the field quickly and give up 80+ yard TD drives to end halves, and the offense has been so disjointed and anemic against most teams on the schedule that they tend to give up yardage and points out of exhaustion as much as poor playmaking. Even the fact that the offense is one of the slowest in the country (thus reducing the total number of plays per game for both teams) hasn't been a blessing, since 3-and-outs that take 30 seconds or 3-and-outs that take 1 1/2/ minutes aren't functionally different.
I don't expect them to replicate a game like this against anyone left on the schedule, but looking at Maryland and NW I see the possibility for the defense to make a bit of a stand these next couple of weeks before OSU, well, you've all seen Oz. At best, it's going to be one of the lighter death scenes in Oz.
Again with all "this is Indiana" caveats applying, the defense still had 12 TFLs, including 2 sacks and another QB hit, spearheaded by Jake Ryan absolutely abusing IU's offensive line for 2.5 TFLs and 10 solo tackles all around. It still feels like a bit of a waste with him in the middle, but it was nice to see him has such a disruptive effect in the game.
It was also the second week in a row that Michigan got a bit of luck in the fumble recovery game, this time Mone recovering Coleman's second stumble-fumble of the first half that Michigan capitalized on for an early 10-point lead. It's a bit too little, too late, but after having major "luck" issues with fumbles and loose balls the past couple of years, it is nice to see the pendulum turn a bit toward the good guys.
Worst: The Muggles
Straight off, I didn't know what a Muggle was until this tweet came out. Despite being a guy who follows professional wrestling, I find stuff like Game of Thrones and Harry Potter slogs to read and just, I don't know, boring. By all means enjoy what you like, but I've always found it hilarious that a Board post about Wrestlemania is littered with people calling it dumb and fake and yet there are heated discussions about characters in a show based on a series of books about dragons and mythical wolves.
Anyway, apparently Elliott Mealer called the University of Michigan students who called for Dave Brandon's firing muggles, which followed up earlier comments from other former players that took issue with (I presume) their impression that people were a bit too excited about a guy they knew getting fired, and that the peanut gallery basically won out over the people who had played for the teams, including the current players. He later deleted the tweet, but because this is the internet a not insignificant number of people returned fire at Mealer, while other agreed with him for a variety of reasons (bad precedence, issues of accountability, etc.).
I don't agree with Mealer's specific rationale, as the "you didn't play, so how do you know" argument is factually weak and intellectually lazy. I don't need to have played lacrosse to know Dave Brandon wasn't very popular at UM and the lines against him were calcified, just like it doesn't take a parent to know this probably was a bad idea.
Still, he has his right to an opinion, just like anyone else.
But I have a bigger issue with the counter-argument that without "the muggles" paying tickets/attending games, there wouldn't be a need for guys like Mealer. First off, most schools don't "make money" on college sports; Michigan is one of the few with an athletic department that generates a profit and is self-sustaining; the vast majority of departments rely on public and private funding to keep everything running. And yet, there are over 125 FBS teams, and even more D1 athletic departments. Unless we take the argument to its logical extreme that nobody, anywhere would watch college sports, fans' contributions don't cover the cost of an athletic department. If it did, we wouldn't have basically any sports other than basketball, football, and baseball in the south and hockey in the northeast and Minnesota, and even that might be a stretch.
Secondly, the "I pay your salary" tone devalues a human's opinion and makes it akin to rank entertainment for the crowd's pleasure. You see it with the arguments against paying players a stipend beyond their scholarships, this idea that they should be happy they have received what they did and stop complaining because most everyone else paid his/her way at Michigan. Now, I'm not sure about the financial situation for others, but I paid part of my way through Michigan but had assistance from family; I definitely couldn't have afforded it without my loving benefactors (read: parents). I've since paid for two graduated degrees via a combination of loans, scholarships, and part-time work, but 18-year-old BronxBlue had some help, and based on my peers at UM I wasn't the outlier. And even if you did pay your whole way, I don't see how that should be held against other people who, for various reasons, are deemed worthy of additional assistance because of some extraordinary ability. We give scholarships to budding math geniuses, and yet in my years of work in various university licensing offices the vast majority of these individuals didn't generate enough money to cover their funding. It isn't their fault; in theory university's are designed to mold the future generations, and that can come from a multitude of actions.
Nobody is "right" in this situation; it's just a bunch of opinions about something that is history. Yes, mob rule isn't usually the best option for making important decisions, but in this case it was pretty clear that Brandon's continued employment was untenable, and the issue was not if but when. At the same time, men and women who work with Dave Brandon, who interact with him on a daily basis, may hold a different opinion of him compared to those who know him only from blog posts and email exchanges, some of whom certainly aren't blameless about the tone of the discussions. The old saying is you can't get 10 people to decide on the toppings for a pizza, so expecting everyone to agree about something so dramatic as the firing of a prominent member of the Michigan athletic department is nigh impossible.
Still, it continues to bother me how quickly the discussion turns from a difference of opinion to attacks on people's character or station in life, and I had (foolishly) hoped that the bulk of Michigan fans would have let it go.
They lost at Iowa 48 to 7, gaining a total of 180 yards of offense. Justin Jackson averaged more yards a run (4.0) than Trevor Siemian did throwing it (3.8), which I hear isn't a good thing. Hopefully Michigan can do roughly the same and get the back to .500 before the big showdown (sigh) with Maryland to decide bowl eligibility and let me book my ticket to the Pinstripe Bowl in Yankee Stadium! Metro North, here I come!
For various reasons, this diary is going to be low on game-specific commentary. The box score tells a pretty complete tale already; I don't think you need me to supplement the numbers to get the drift. Plus, I need a little R&R.
Worst: Our Place in the Dirt
Few lines have gotten me this excited about a movie more than Mr. Dirk Pitt intoning about the plight of the human civilization as we look to the heavens for a way to escape a dying planet before the last embers of humanity as extinguished. From what I've read about the movie, it is all about scientists discovering a wormhole that (apparently) would allow faster-than-light space travel, Earth no longer being capable of sustaining life due to the effects of cataclysmic climate change, and Dr. Larch calling upon Rust Cohle and Fantine to travel beyond the solar system in search of new, habitable planets. Throw in Christopher Nolan and some cool cinematic effects, and I am already making triple-redundant babysitter plans for opening weekend. Doesn't look like I'll be missing much in the way of relevant football then.
For decades, Michigan fans looked at every season not just with hope, but with expectations. They expected to compete for conference titles and bowl wins, to beat rivals and stay atop the college wins list. To being, for lack of a better word, good. The stars didn't always align themselves (and let's be frank, more times than not goals were equal parts hubris and idealization), but Michigan fans always had their heads up, dreaming big.
But since 2006, that hasn't been the case. Sure, there have been glimmers here and there (most of 2011, the starts of 2009, 2010, and pre-Akron 2013), but they've all been mirages, pockets of air escaping a dying husk of a collective fantasy. Michigan the football program isn't "dead", of course; it will rebuild (with a new administration and a new coach) and undoubtedly return to competitiveness on a national stage. You don't post decades of winning seasons without being able to adapt and reform, and this fallow period will most likely be an historical outlier (and not a trend) when my kids look back 32 years from now.
But I'm talking about the future, of a generation of fans who are still figuring out what "Michigan football" means to them. They'll know it for this period of struggling, but as the team improves these memories will fade away, and one day they'll look back and wonder what the hell was happening in Ann Arbor in the late 00's and early 10's, much like my generation wonders about Bump Elliott and the 60's. But this generation, the current era of fans who only know Bo and Carr and "the Streak" and spoiling OSU's perfect seasons and consistently pants-ing MSU, those memories are being buried deeper and deeper under each blowout loss and non-competitive game, under every good coaching hire in Columbus and East Lansing, and every "great" alum chiming in with his #HOTTAKE about the current team. This is our first taste of failure, and its one that will linger for years.
I'll be there cheering on Michigan in 2019 or whenever they are "legitimately" good again. When they are beating MSU and OSU, winning 9-10 games consistently, and celebrating your first touchdown in nearly 3 games doesn't break Ace. But right now I'm staring at the ground, powerless to effect change and just hoping that someone, anyone can make sense of what has happened these past 7 years and make it stop. And yeah, I'm sure they will, but it will be hard to wipe away this much dirt, this much grime with a couple more wins against Sparty and a couple of shiny TV games. It's going to take something truly significant.
Or maybe none of this matters. Maybe this is just a cycle ever team goes through, the karmic payoff for 40+ years of bowl games and #1 selling merchandise. Maybe Michigan's Circadian rhythm is just longer than everyone else's, its death and rebirth on a different timeframe than most others, and thus what feels unfortunate and untimely is right on cosmic schedule.
Worst: 11 Points
Michigan scored an offensive touchdown against MSU for the first time in 3 games, or to put into perspective, for the first time since before the world had 7 billion people on it. Excuse me for a moment.
Best (I Guess): No Hell in a Cell
You know how I know you know something about professional wrestling, dear reader? Because you've heard good Ol' J.R. announce epic dunks, huge hits, and internet fails for years now. And chances are you probably watched the original video of the Undertaker vs. Mankind in Hell in a Cell. If you haven't, here's that memorable scene.
What made this match so memorable wasn't the novelty of the cage; it had been around in a similar form for some time, most prominently as part of WCW's WarGames gimmick match. And the violence that is so easily lent to the caged environment had become far less jarring with the continued evolution and prominence of lesser-known federations such as ECW, which had co-opted the "hardcore" style previously found in Japan and (to a lesser extent) Mexico and Latin America. No, what made these early Hell in a Cell matches iconic was the escalating brutality they displayed. In the first, Shawn Michaels took a for-then rough bump to the floor, but it was still pretty controlled and "safe", basically Michaels jumping from the cage onto a free-cut table. But when the Undertaker battled Mankind, any reservations or sense of self-preservations were thrown out the window. Watch the video again, and see Mick Foley dive off that cage onto the floor. When Ross cried out that Foley was likely dead, you could hear real concern in his voice. We were still a year away from Owen Hart's tragic death during a pay-per-view making this kayfabe fear a reality, but this was still a grown fan flying off the top of a 20+ foot cage onto the concrete floor of an arena. It was both terrific theatre and terrifying spectacle, and the fact Mick Foley continues to show the lasting effects of this and other, similarly-brutal matches cannot be forgotten.
Last year's game felt like Gardner was flung from the top of the cage. We semi-joke around here about his ribs being crushed by MSU and that "breaking" him, but it was terrifying to watch and made me legitimately question whether or not referees should be allowed to pull a player for his safety. The fact Gardner kept getting up was courageous in a sense, but at some point you just wished he had stayed down and everyone just go home. But in a sad testament to the season thus far, I didn't think Gardner suffered nearly as much against a ferocious MSU front. Yes he was sacked twice and hit a half-dozen more times, but it looked like a normal 2014 game, not a life-changing evisceration on national TV. It was your typical slobberknocker between these two teams, and if we are looking for a silver lining at all, everybody seemed to leave the game with all of their bones and organs in the same general place.
Worst: So Close
This is Michigan's gameplan in a single gif. They had halfway-decent field position on a couple of drives, and moved the ball in fits and spurts. But every time they had the hint of momentum, they'd go for an ill-fated flea-flicker, or fail to execute a simple bubble screen, or just run the damn ball on 2nd-and-9 for 1 yard and waste any opportunity to keep the game close. It was infuriating, it was depressing, it was par the course for the year.
Worst: Running Gardner
I saw a number of people arguing for Gardner to be more involved in the running game, the logical argument being that while his passing wasn't working well against MSU's stout defense (13/28 for 121 with 2 picks - including on pick-6), he likely would have been more effective running the ball compared to the rest of the team (which if you squint kinda came within the ballpark of 100 yards total). And maybe in another world, with actual QB depth and a coherent offensive plan, I'd agree with you.
But we've seen the backups for UM at the QB position - Morris isn't close to running this team, and Bellomy has looked lost every time he's been asked to do anything with this team. This game was lost as soon as the two teams had the coin flip, but (in theory) Michigan has a chance to finish 6-6 and make a bowl game with very winnable games against NW, IU, and Maryland coming up. But if Gardner goes down and is replaced by either of his most-likely backups, the team might as well not get off the bus. And though I'm absolutely of the belief that Hoke should be gone, he's still being paid to win games for the University of Michigan, and he is going to make decisions that will maximize his ability to do so. That means keeping Devin Gardner as healthy as possible, and in a game where MSU was going to be teeing off on him at every opportunity, exposing Gardner to any more damage in a lost game didn't make a whole lot of sense.
Worst: Saving Timeouts
It was beyond infuriating to watch Brady Hoke allow MSU to run a good 40 seconds off the gameclock to end the half before scoring their second TD to push the game to 14-3. With MSU needing about a quarter of a yard on 3rd down, Hoke allowed MSU to run the play clock down before plunging forward for a score. Even if UM stops MSU at that point and the Spartans kick a FG, a couple TOs used there conserves clock and gives UM a chance to at least get within long FG range. But with a full complement of TOs, Hoke let the clock burn down, ran for a couple of yards on the last play of the half, and went into halftime with three timeouts and nothing to show for them.
I guess you could argue Hoke wanted to see if his defense could hold MSU without giving the Spartans a chance to consult on 3rd down, or that he didn't want to expose his beleaguered offense to another set of downs that could lead to a turnover or some other misfortune. Those are all theories with merit in a vacuum. But this is Brady Hoke and Michigan in 2014, and that this point try to win the F*CKING GAME and squeeze one more possession out of the game. You'd already gotten a couple of gifts in that first half; any shred of confidence you could hang your hat on went out the window when you basically told your offense you'd rather regroup than try to matriculate the ball down the field in a minute. Still...
Worst: Hoke is the Worst A.I. Ever
Punting on fourth and three down 25 with nine minutes left. Fucking quitter. — mgoblog (@mgoblog) October 25, 2014
This might be semantics, but I don't think Hoke is a quitter. He's (sadly) calling the game the same way in the 1st quarter as he is in the 4th quarter. He's like the worst movie version of artificial intelligence. He doesn't learn from the past, he doesn't integrate new information into his plans, he isn't becoming sentient, and he sure as hell isn't turning the world's electronics against the humans. He's a mediocre football coach who seems unwilling to break out of his gameplan to any meaningful degree, and that's why all of these losses feel the same. With a lead he's maybe willing to take a couple of chances, but when he's down its all huddling, predictable pass plays, and punting for field position. He's not trying to "look good" for his bosses or nab a "moral" victory; he's just coaching like Brady Hoke at Michigan. Now, the fact that this style resembles a guy who is over his head and failed to install anything resembling a consistent, sustainable identity is another matter.
They gave up 446 yards, 4.8 yards a rush, busted on a 70-yard TD pass, and never made life too uncomfortable for Connor Cook. At the same time, they played 29 minutes of the first half, forced a couple of turnovers to keep the game close, stopped MSU on 4th down, and for long stretches of the game looked competent despite missing a number of rotation/starters. I know the raw numbers say otherwise, but it did feel like the defense was up to the challenge of today's game, and had the offense been able to sustain anything in that first half the game might have been a bit closer. I'm not saying there would have been an upset, but for a defense that hasn't caught a break all year, the turnovers in particular were a welcome reprieve from the muck and, had they been capitalized on better, might have kept the game more competitive.
Longer-term, it doesn't really matter what Mattison and his coordinators do going forward. Like Hoke, they are gone in a couple of weeks, so complaints about coverages, line play, RPS, etc. are kinda irrelevant. I could see a world in which Nussmeier is retained due to his relative newness to the program and the expertise of the coach coming in, but Mattison is going to ride into the sunset with Hoke. He'll leave having improved Michigan's defense significantly from RR's time, but not to the level people expected after 2011 and, frankly, what was needed to keep this team competitive.
[EDIT: Put this in comments section below, figured I'd add it here for completeness]
Best: IU Defense - The Best Gift a Sport Could Give
So my daughter is celebrating her first birthday next week. Since she's been born, Michigan has basically lost every meaningful game and looked like a steaming crater of tires covered in bird shit. So that's not a good thing. But what IS a good thing is that they are playing Indiana, and with all due respect to Jamie Mac, I'm pretty excited to see Michigan get a chance to put the spurs to a bad defense for once. It won't make up for the past 12 months, but it will give me something else to smile about, and would be a perfect gift for this little Wolverine-in-training.